THE knock on the NCAA’s men’s seniors basketball tournament for the past few years has been the very predictable nature of its games. Yes, there would be an odd upset here or there but by and large, form charts would hold on a regular basis.
This means that a team that was expected to win will win, and often by lopsided margins. If two teams were close enough in the standings and in the reckoning of experts, then that would be a close game but as these are mostly between teams that were nowhere near sniffing distance of the Final Four, only the team’s diehards would care who won.
This year’s 88th season of the NCAA is three weeks old and we’ve seen shocker upon shocker threaten what had been the status quo for quite a while. The University of Perpetual Help System Dalta (try saying that fast five times), a team that was last relevant in the league during the glory days of Noy Javier and Khiel Misa in ‘04, has beaten two of the so-called Big Three of the NCAA (Letran and San Beda) and the rest of their first-round schedule looks winnable, even the game against current surprised (past tense intentional) leader Jose Rizal University.
The Altas had been a work in progress the past couple of years – under Boris Aldeguer in 2010 and Jimwell Gican last season, but were always at a disadvantage so to speak because recruitment was tough. If I may borrow a line from a 70s country song, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Altas.”
Even in their own backyard of Las Pinas, Paranaque and the northern parts of Cavite and Laguna, they encountered opposition from minor league powerhouse St. Francis of Assisi College as well as Las Pinas College, Olivarez College and even Colegio de Sta. Monica in the quest for talents. So often, the Altas have had to find players from the south and they’ve had great success finding skilled but not very tall players from the Visayas and Mindanao.
I had predicted on this very site that I considered UPHSD a possible Final Four contender because of several factors, the first of which is that they were quite impressive during the summer leagues. Sure, playing in April to June isn’t the same as playing in the real thing and UPHSD has had more than its share of preseason success and regular season failure in recent years but this seemed different.
Second, their top Cameroonian recruit Femi Babayeni is the real deal defensively and at least at par when compared to former Red Lion Sam Ekwe when the latter was starting out. Third, most of the contributors from last year’s overachieving five-win team (yes, they were overachievers given their lineup and loss of coach barely a week before hostilities began).
And lastly, they now have Aric del Rosario and boy has “Aric Magic” (anyone copyrighted the phrase yet?) rubbed off on these players. The 72-year old mentor, who had been the league’s commissioner the last few seasons, saw up close that this team only needed a veteran hand to guide them perhaps, one who had been out of the coaching game for several years and who may have a newfound vigor once reinstalled on the sidelines.
And the Altas, who have to endure a 90-minute plus bus trip one way from their campus along the Alabang-Zapote road to the San Juan Arena, are suddenly 3-2 after Thursday’s memorable game, easily one of the most heart-pounding elimination-round college games in recent memory, where a team hits a miracle shot to tie it at the buzzer of regulation, only to lose a four-point lead in the final 15.6 seconds of overtime.
Yes, those things don’t normally happen, and the Altas being in second place in the team standings five games into the season certainly qualifies as well. So what the heck is going on in the NCAA?
Host Letran, after a big win over San Sebastian on opening day, has since lost three straight to teams that they had figured on beating – UPHSD, Arellano and St. Benilde. Sure there have been some injuries, but a team with a great coach at the helm with solid, experienced players shouldn’t be struggling at this point of the season.
No one is winless at this stage and only one team is left unbeaten, and those are the JRU Heavy Bombers. Every year since James Sena and John Wilson (and ok Mark Cagoco, you did your share, too) left Shaw, I predicted the team’s fortunes would falter, specially under then neophyte coach Vergel Meneses, who had never before handled a responsibility like this in his life.
But lo and behold, Meneses has already been to two Final Fours and now has the confidence of a guy who knows what he’s doing on the sidelines (cue his year one huddles when he seemed lost during timeouts early in the season). And this year’s Bombers are now 3-0 behind the emergence, finally, of Mr. Vegas – Nate Matute, who has put up Wilson-esque scoring numbers in his last two games (29.5 ppg average).
But don’t get me wrong, it’s a team game and the Bombers know their roles on the court. Much of the core of this team has been together for three years now and the cohesion shows.
This weekend, it’s the turn of the UAAP to open its season and while everyone points to Ateneo as the favorites, the four-time champions might find the road a little trickier this season because for the first time in a bit, they are not entering the season with a proven point guard (the plan is for Kiefer to carry the ballhandling load) and it seems pressure defense is the de facto setting for most UAAP teams.
Nevertheless, Ateneo’s guard losses are less severe than Adamson’s (Lester Alvarez and Jerrick Canada. Ouch!) so they should be alright but, as I mentioned, it may be a long season for the titleholders.
* The hardest part about writing a first column is coming up with a title – but sometimes it just comes to you. I’ll be commenting on the spirited goings on in college ball and indeed, I am old. So put them together and that is what you’ll get in this space every time my byline pops up – one old geezer’s take on a young man’s game.
I promise to make it fun for you and me.