EVEN with a squad loaded with stars, NLEX insists it will be one of the underdogs in the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup that tips off on Tuesday at the Filoil Flying V Arena in San Juan.
The Road Warriors, the only team to win a championship in the fledgling league, go for their fourth straight title in the coming conference with a lineup that had been revamped and retooled following the departure of Cliff Hodge, Chris Ellis and Calvin Abueva for the PBA.
NLEX was able to recruit some of the most talented collegiate players in the country in Ateneo center Greg Slaughter, two-time UAAP finals MVP Nico Salva, Adamson’s Eric Camson, Smart Gilas 2.0 mainstay Matt Ganuelas, and Letran star Kevin Alas.
Holdovers of the team include San Sebastian’s Ian Sangalang and Ronald Pascual, Far Eastern University’s RR Garcia, and American Kirk Long.
But NLEX team manager Roland Duterte claimed during Monday’s press conference at Gerry’s Grill in Ali Mall that it is still not enough to make them a top contender, at least in the early part of the conference.
“Very competitive lahat ng teams and with the departure of nine players to the pros, definitely we have a new team,” said the NLEX team manager. “Our problem is chemistry since some of our players nasa NCAA finals pa and some, babalik pa lang.”
Adonis Tierra, lieutenant of NLEX head coach Boyet Fernandez, seconded Dularte and pointed out that Big Chill is the strongest team this conference.
“Siguro, baliktad na this season,” said Tierra. “NLEX, kami na ang underdog. Mahirap para sa amin, bago ’yung team, halos kalahati ng players hindi pa nagpa-practice. Hindi pa kami nakakabuo.”
Big Chill coach Robert Sison disagreed, saying the field is more or less balanced.
“It’s not only NLEX and Big Chill who are very competitive,” Sison said. “It just so happened na ’yung mga players na nakuha namin ay prime players in their respective teams."
Like the Road Warriors, the Superchargers were also affected by the exodus of players to the pros, with Alex Mallari, Keith Jensen and Raffy Reyes now plying their trade in the PBA.
Big Chill, however, picked up Far Eastern University guard Terrence Romeo, top Adamson scorer Alex Nuyles, Janus Lozada, Arvie Bringas, Ryan Buenafe, and six-foot-eight Fil-American Isaac Holstein to bolster its lineup.
“We lost our starting five… but we are satisfied sa mga pumalit. They can fill the void left…’Yung mga players na nakuha namin, very professional and disciplined enough to play their roles in the team,” Sison said.
Barring any last-minute changes, Fruitas, the newest team in the league, is also set to parade a competitive team with several players of the San Beda Red Lions joining the team including big man Ola Adeogun.
The Shakers will also have former UP Fighting Maroon Mike Silungan and College of Saint Benilde Blazer Carlo Lastimosa.
“Medyo late kami nag-start, nag-practice kami three days ago,” said Fruitas coach Nash Racela. “We’ve had three full practices with eight to 11 players and we play on Thursday.
“We promise that we will do our best with young, energetic, and promising players,” said Racela.
Also competing this conference are Blackwater Sports, Cebuana Lhuillier, Café France, Boracay Rum, Informatics, Jose Rizal University, Cagayan Rising Suns, and Erase XFoliant.