CIGNAL-ATENEO aims to live up to the hype when the 2019 PBA D-League season opens store on Thursday against Go for Gold-CSB at Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig.
The Hawkeyes, now carrying the core of UAAP champions Blue Eagles, are the favorites to come out on top from the Aspirants Group.
But for coach Tab Baldwin, he's not really too worried on matching everyone's expectations.
"This time of the year is for the individual development of our players and we want to focus on how we're playing as a team. We're doing that for experience, to get some team activity, but the primary goal is individual development. We're trying to develop PBA players and Gilas players here," said the former national team mentor.
Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, and Matt Nieto banner Cignal-Ateneo in the school's maiden foray in the developmental ranks, with Ivorian big man Ange Kouame backstopping them in the paint.
It won't be an easy first hurdle, though, for the Hawkeyes as standing in their way are the Foundation Cup champion Go for Gold-CSB.
Scratchers coach Charles Tiu himself acknowledges how difficult his side's title retention bid is, especially in this 20-team field.
"It will be a tough climb for us to win the championship again," he admitted.
However, that underdog mentality is what makes Go for Gold-CSB dangerous, as Tiu will lean on the leadership of Justin Gutang and Fil-Am sniper Roosevelt Adams to carry the fight for his side.
"I know a lot of teams are counting us out and don't even expect us to be playoff contenders, but we're gonna do our best," he said.
Game time is at 2 p.m., following the 1 p.m. opening ceremonies.
Meanwhile, Marinerong Pilipino and Valencia City Bukidnon-SSC-R face off at 4 p.m. for the right to gain an early lead in the Foundation Group.
La Salle forward Santi Santillan and Ateneo sniper Anton Asistio are expected to banner the Skippers, as the Golden Stags bank on their leaders Allyn Bulanadi and RK Ilagan.