THE top of the NCAA senior standings after a mere three weeks of play has not been this close in recent memory.
No team is unscathed – San Sebastian College pinned the first loss on last unbeaten squad Jose Rizal University last Saturday in emphatic fashion; and even lowly Emilio Aguinaldo College has a win.
We also noticed that the usual 30-point thrashings inflicted by the elite squads on the downtrodden have yet to happen (although it’s still early), and there seems to be hope that this would now be a thing of the past rather than a regular occurrence. And Arellano’s 83-52 thrashing of Lyceum doesn’t count because both are considered minnows by NCAA standards.
Of course, when the starry hopes of June and July turn into the doldrums of August and September and teams find themselves sliding further and further away from a possible Final Four berth, these horrendous beatings may return with a vengeance but for now, the spirited play we have grown to love among the collegians is here.
For coach Louie Alas, whose Letran Knights are part of a four-team logjam occupying fifth to eighth spots, the reason for the seeming parity is simple – the bad teams with underperforming assets have by and large ditched the deadwood from their benches and replaced them with players who can actually contribute to winning.
“Tingnan mo 'yung mga mahina before like College of St. Benilde and University of Perpetual Help System Dalta, dati mapagod lang yung first five nila halos wala nang mahugot yung coach nila,” remarked the veteran mentor. “Pero ngayon hindi na. Lumalim na yung mga lineups nila kaya laban na rin.”
UPHSD shares the lead with the Stags, the Heavy Bombers and Red Lions, who were given fits by CSB last Monday before falling. Letran is tied with CSB, Mapua and Arellano. Probationary member Lyceum has won twice in six games and while EAC brings up the rear, no one is taking Gerry Esplana’s charges lightly.
The Knights snapped a three-game losing streak last Monday by beating fellow Intramuros squad Mapua behind great games by veterans Kevin Alas and Jam Cortes. This enabled the Knight followers to heave a sigh of relief but coach Louie Alas credits the win to the team’s new-found dedication toward practices.
“Iyung tatlong talo namin kasalanan ko,” said the wizened tactician who has won at every level he’s been in – college, pro and international. “Yes, nanalo kami sa San Sebastian nung opening day pero yun ‘yung last time na parang complete at focused yung team namin. After that, nagkaroon na ng problema.”
The problem stemmed from Louie reaching an understanding with his players that it’s okay to miss practices as long as they show up mentally and physically ready to play. He felt that his veterans, especially those who had been with him at least for the past three years, would be more than responsible to keep themselves ready at a moment’s notice. He was mistaken.
“Na-trigger iyan noong UPHSD game. Kahit hindi nag-ensayo si Raymond (Almazan, the team’s 6-7 center and defensive anchor), I still played him heavy minutes against the Altas and it backfired,” said Alas. Then in the Arellano game which Almazan missed, big men Jam Cortes and Jonathan Belorio were ejected and it was the debut game of Fil-Canadian find James Forrester, whose arrival has turned the Chiefs’ fortunes around.
In the CSB game, with Almazan still AWOL and their two other regular big men under suspension, the Knights played well, leading by double digits early until lone remaining veteran big man Junjun Alas got into foul trouble and the Blazers found their rhythm. Then it was another horrible loss, matching Letran’s 2010 start, the only year in recent memory that they missed the final four.
“Welcoming committee din kasi kami,” remarked Alas, who was happy they beat Mapua despite the NCAA allowing the four Cardinals with eligibility questions, to finally suit up. And the graciousness doesn’t end there. Letran next plays San Beda on Saturday in the first official game of the Red Lions’ latest foreign recruit – center Oleida Adeogun, another gigantic Nigerian who seems better than countryman Sam Ekwe at this same stage of their careers.
And they’ll play again without Almazan, who continues to miss practice. Attitude problems for the athletic beanpole? “Hindi ka naman kailangan maging genius para makita iyon,” said Alas, who will continue to sit his starting center, and anyone else, should they continue to miss practices.