RENSY Bajar is one of the few who kept himself glued to his sofa watching this year's March Madness.
The Diliman coach witnessed teams like top-seed Gonzaga sustain its undefeated season after blasting no. 6 USC, 85-66, to rule the West Regional, while also seeing no. 11 UCLA continue its Cinderella run, edging no. 1 Michigan, 51-49, to win the East Regional and advance to the Final Four.
It's compelling television, to say the least, but Bajar couldn't help but wonder, "Sana tayo rin."
The 2021 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament was one of the few overseas events which have kept sports fans hyped in these trying times, all the more that the hopeful resumption of sporting action in the country, at least for the amateurs, has been dashed again with Metro Manila and the neighboring provinces placed anew under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
Bajar isn't one in having those thoughts, hoping that the euphoria of March Madness can also be done in a Philippine setting.
There were efforts, with the Philippine Collegiate Champions League (PCCL) trying its best to annually hold tournaments to determine the national collegiate champions.
Unfortunately, its luster has waned over the past years and has had much difficulty replicating the same buzz as its counterpart in the United States.
Yet coaches here believe that it could be done.
"Sa tingin ko, kaya natin," said San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez, whose Red Lions won the crown twice, first in 2014, and then in 2015 together with Far Eastern University.
University of the Philippines coach Bo Perasol agreed, saying, "The cause of a national collegiate championship is very noble."
But nobody said that making it a reality will be an easy endeavor.
Perasol pointed out a more extensive media coverage, better scheduling, and more stable funding as three keys which the success of PCCL could hinge on. If those will be achieved, he has no question that the glitter of the tournament - and winning it - will soon be back.
"Personally, nakita ko na what would give interest to the viewing public and also sa schools who are concerned is one, yung coverage ng liga in terms of TV cause malaking bagay yan. Also, the scheduling could be better kasi ang nangyayari, may players na pauwi na after their seasons and nagiging manipis yung availability nila. And lastly, kailangan din ng major sponsor. Before, malaki yung mga sponsors pero nung huli, parang wala na kaya parang naghihingalo na rin," he said.
Fernandez agreed, although he believes a better scheduling of the national championship, traditionally done after the championship series of the mother leagues, could be addressed if the organizers themselves would be strict in requiring teams to only field players who saw action in the past season.
"If ire-require talaga ng organizers na kailangan sa lineup nila is yung nag-represent sa team for their respective seasons, pwede sana," he said.
But here lies the biggest problem for the PCCL brass: the non-existence of a set competition calendar.
Under normal circumstances, collegiate seasons begin at around July and for some like the UAAP, in September. These usually run for at least three months, already accounting the usual suspensions and other factors, and wrap up at around November and December.
Once their mother leagues finish, some opt to go on vacation while others, especially the seniors, turn their attention to entering the pro league through the PBA Rookie Draft.
These conditions force the teams themselves to beef up their rosters of players who are in the Team B or those coming in for the next season.
Movements like these also corrode the integrity of holding the tournament, with some feeling that the top teams in Metro Manila, especially those in the UAAP and the NCAA aren't really taking the PCCL seriously and using it as a "preseason to the preseason."
Bajar thinks that issues like these can be resolved if there is a governing body for basketball like the US NCAA.
"Dapat naguusap yung mga liga and form a tournament body para maayos ito. Dapat magkaroon sila ng resolution na we need to have a tournament to determine sino ang champion sa Pilipinas tulad ng ginagawa sa US NCAA," he said.
Upon Spin.ph's check, the Philippines has about 30 leagues nationwide, led by Manila-based organizations like UAAP, NCAA, NAASCU, and UCBL, and Cebuano league CESAFI.
"Ang habol naman ng teams is ma-expose yung school at yung liga nila, so if mabigyan ng pansin yung iba, magkakaroon ng interes lahat na isabak yung Team A nila. Yung mismong tournament body ang magsasabi na ito dapat ang premier league at dapat sinasalihan ito ng lahat. Mas gaganda ang tournament pag may ganyan," Bajar continued.
Mike Reyes, who handles Southwestern University-PHINMA in Cebu, also believes that the intervention of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) could better address the situation.
"If the SBP will intervene, baka nga mas maganda. Wag nilang paangatin yung seniors until they fulfill their final obligations sa teams nila sa college, which is yung PCCL," he said.
It has been done before, with the Basketball Association of the Philippines (BAP), which was the predecessor of the SBP, one of the prime movers of the National Inter-Collegiate Championship.
Fernandez, though, believes that schools themselves should pay more attention to making the national collegiate championships a success.
"Problema lang siguro is for the other schools, after nilang mag-champion sa liga nila, wala na. Hindi na pinapansin yung PCCL. Minsan magpapadala ng player, future players na nila," he said. "We have to take the PCCL as an important tournament cause national championship yan eh. You may be the no. 1 team in the UAAP or NCAA, pero iba na sa PCCL kasi lahat na kasali."
But truth be told, these issues are only prevalent for a majority of UAAP and NCAA schools who use the PCCL as their preliminary tuneup games, using it as their early preparation for the next season rather than it being the final games of their current season.
Worse, some teams even use it as a recruitment trip, using it as an opportunity to attract players who they can implore to transfer to their schools.
"Whatever we do, it's beyond our control if seseryosohin nila yung tournament or not," lamented Reyes.
For the others, like in the case of Bajar's Diliman College, Reyes' SWU-PHINMA, as well as other provincial teams, they look at the PCCL as the biggest stage of their seasons.
"Pinaghahandaan namin talaga is yung PCCL," admitted Bajar, a former UP coach and a current assistant for NorthPort.
The Bajar-coached Blue Dragons have reigned in the UCBL for the past two seasons and have been the league's representatives in the PCCL. In 2020, it participated in the Luzon qualifiers in Naga and finished second to UP, barely missing the cut in the tournament's Final Four.
"As a coach, my goal for my team is to compete with the best," remarked Reyes, brother of TNT coach Chot Reyes.
The Cobras won the 2019 CESAFI tournament, but lost in the Visayas-Mindanao qualifiers, known as Escandor Cup, to also miss out on the Final Four.
As much as the usual suspects reign supreme in the end, having these games has greatly helped in improving the level of competition for the others.
"Yung basketball kasi, hindi lang sa NCR. Talagang competitive na ang labanan hanggang sa probinsya," said Bajar. "Yung experience ang ganda. Dahil sa games na yun, nakaka-level din yung team namin sa mga mas malalakas na schools."
Reyes agreed, noting, "Simple lang ang hanap namin, yung maka-compete. Kuntento na kami doon. As much as the competition is strong, mas gagaling kami cause we'll have to find ways to upset them. And coaches in the provinces are getting better. So pag gumaling kami, aangat lahat at lahat magi-improve."
And we have seen that before, with some talents using the PCCL as their platform to introduce themselves to the public.
June Mar Fajardo led CESAFI champion University of Cebu to the semifinals, losing to Ateneo before settling for fourth place honors back in 2010. He was named as that year's National Collegiate Player of the Year.
Technological Institute of the Philippines also banked on Jorey Napoles to make it as far as the quarterfinals in 2015, while MVP Rey Suerte showed his deadly form for CESAFI titlist University of the Visayas in its bridesmaid finish to Ateneo in 2019.
It's the tough reality that bites Philippine basketball, with the Manila-based teams, armed with more funding and more bullish recruitment, drawing talents from the provinces and, in turn, widening the gap of competition.
Yet the coaches believe that it's where the school's programs come into play.
"Medyo lopsided siguro ang competition sa simula kung ilalaban mo sa Manila teams, pero as they get used to that level of competition, you'll see unti-unting nakakalapit yung mga nasa provinces. Doon papasok yung posibilidad ng upset," said Perasol.
Since the PCCL held its first tournament in 2003, only UAAP and NCAA schools have won the Manny V. Pangilinan trophy.
CESAFI teams have made the finals thrice, with University of the Visayas reaching the championship game in 2007 and 2018, while SWU did it in 2013.
Over the years, the conduct of the competition has been constantly revised as the organizers felt the need to level the playing field.
So how should one do it?
Reyes thinks that adopting March Madness' single-round elimination format would be intruguing.
"Sa akin, mas tama yung ginawa before na may Sweet Sixteen. It doesn't follow na you're a champion team in lets say Cebu, and then you'll meet yung fourth place sa UAAP or NCAA sa qualifying," he said.
The PCCL did that from 2007 to 2010, giving automatic berths to league champions while leaving the rest of the field to inter-zonal winners in the qualifying rounds.
Through that stretch, it did see its fair share of blowouts, like when San Beda beat Sacred Heart School Tacloban, 105-48, in the Round of 16 of 2007, and the Red Lions blasting San Sebastian-Cavite, 91-50, in the Round of 16 of 2009. But it also delivered monumental upsets, like when STI took down FEU, 77-72 in the quarterfinals, and that same Olympians team nipping University of Santo Tomas, 87-81, in overtime to win third place in 2007.
Reyes even recalled in 2009 when his University of San Carlos gave the Calvin Abueva-led San Sebastian a run for their money in the Round of 16. "Powerhouse yung team nila, but we could've won it in the Sweet Sixteen," he alluded as the Warriors fell to the Golden Stags in overtime, 76-68.
Since then, formats have been tinkered on a continued basis.
In 2020, champions and runner-ups from the UAAP and NCAA played in a round robin format, with the top two teams advancing to the final four. The other two spots, meanwhile, came from the winners of the Luzon and the Vis-Min Qualifying Rounds. In the end, Ateneo beat San Beda, 57-46, to capture its fifth crown, the most for a school in the PCCL.
Still, the format left a lot to be desired for some.
Bajar actually liked the competition system but felt that automatic semifinal byes shouldn't be given that easily even if you're a UAAP or NCAA champion.
"Kung ano yung pinagdaanan ng iba, sabay-sabay dapat," he said, while believing that the field should be expanded more given the number of collegiate leagues and teams present in the country today.
Fernandez, meanwhile, thinks that the format used in the National Inter-Collegiate Championship should be revisited, where champions per region were determined in their own qualifiers before advancing to the national championship.
What he wants to see is for a body to be able to seed the said teams like what is done in the US NCAA. "Kailangan may mag-bracket ng maayos. Nagawa na before sa seeding, pero mahirap pa rin talaga i-determine sino ang mas malakas sa mga teams," he said.
On the other hand, Perasol advocated for an almost similar format, albeit basing it by zone, saying, "It's a good idea na yung top four sa Mindanao, kakalabanin yung top four sa Visayas, and then meron din sa Luzon, and may bukod na qualifying sa Manila. Kung sino ang mananalo doon, sila ang pwede mag-advance para masala mo talaga kung sino ang national champion."
Adding more weight to the competition, the UP coach said that a berth in the international collegiate competitions in the Asia-Pacific could be up for grabs for the winner of the PCCL.
"Malalakas yung teams na nakakalaban doon at may malaking prize, so pwede nilang gawin na kung sino ang mag-champion, they will be the Philippines' representative and all-expense paid yung trip na yun," said Perasol.
But that's where we go back to square one: logistics.
For the Philippines to be able to hold its own version of March Madness, an exorbitant amount of money is needed to be shelled out.
It's a task so improbable but never impossible, one that, like in Philippine basketball and in society as a whole, can be done if all truly come together for one noble cause.
Until then, we'll all be left like Bajar watching his TV screen and wishing that soon enough, we'll all have our own one shining moment.