DYNASTY is a word that’s often thrown around in basketball, but only those who have left an indelible mark in the sport truly deserve to be hailed as such.
In the early days of the UAAP, Baby Dalupan’s University of the East won 12 championships from 1957 to 1971 and reigned as one of the first powerhouses which laid claim to the dynasty status.
Only a few teams have managed to come close to such a feat since.
The Aric del Rosario-mentored University of Santo Tomas won four straight titles from 1993 to 1996, which was kicked off by a historic season sweep in 1993. Franz Pumaren’s La Salle matched that feat when it ruled the league from 1998 to 2001.
The most recent one was when Norman Black and Ateneo won five in a row from 2008 to 2012.
Ateneo winning consecutive titles has sparked talk of the present-day Blue Eagles joining that elite list. But coach Tab Baldwin insisted any talk of a dynasty is premature in the shadow of that five-peat squad just a couple of years back.
“First of all, back-to-back doesn’t look so important when you put it next to five in a row. It looks like a little bump on the road compared to that mountain that they did,” said the former national coach.
But no matter how hard Baldwin plays it down, Ateneo's future looked so good any talk of a dynasty is inevitable.
Only Anton Asistio will be graduating from the team which basically ran over the competition in the UAAP after a 5-2 start in the first round. Reigning Finals MVP Thirdy Ravena is set to return for one more year, alongside the Nieto twins Matt and Mike, and Raffy Verano, all integral parts of their title run over the past two years.
By the time they burn out their eligibility, guys like Angelo Kouame, Tyler Tio and Gian Mamuyac – players who’ve gained significant experience this season - are expected to take over the mantle.
When it comes to building and handling dynasties, there’s no one more familiar with it in the NCAA than San Beda head coach Boyet Fernandez. He now has won four titles with the Red Lions in the country’s oldest collegiate league.
And he, too, thinks this Ateneo team has the tools to dominate beyond this season.
“I think with just one player graduating, they definitely can go for a three-peat next year,” Fernandez said, adding this Blue Eagles side is capable of matching, if not surpassing, the five-peat of the Black-era side.
“They have great players, a very good coach in Tab Baldwin, very good support from the bosses and the community,” Fernandez said. “I think they have the tools to match the five-peat or maybe even surpass it.”
Topex Robinson can only marvel at what Baldwin has built and continues to build in Ateneo. The Lyceum coach said that this team will only be more dangerous especially with the exposure that they’re getting not only in the UAAP but in international competitions like the last Jones Cup in Taipei as well.
“I think they’re in the process of building it now. Yun nga, they’ll only lose one player, the core is there together with the experience that they had, not only winning the UAAP championship but representing the country. I think malaking bagay sa kanila yun,” said Robinson.
“I wouldn’t say dynasty na ngayon pero I’m sure what they’re building right now is really something special. So I would say they’re on the verge of building a dynasty with coach Tab.”
For Robinson, what truly makes this team special is that they’re not only winning titles left and right for the community, they’re also elevating the level of play for all schools, in the process raising the bar for all college basketball programs.
This goes not only in the UAAP but also for teams outside of it like Robinson’s Lyceum in the NCAA.
“We all know that coach Tab turned that ship around as far as the program of Ateneo is concerned. Yung program talaga, tinaas niya lalo. Not only teams in the UAAP but Philippine college in general,” said Robinson.
“We really try to look up to and emulate them and that’s what they brought in after winning this championship."
Former UAAP champion coach Eric Altamirano, who won a UAAP championship with National University back in 2014, said this Ateneo team has an ace up its sleeve in the towering Kouame.
“That’s a possibility. The team is intact, I think for the coming season isa lang mawawala, and (Angelo) Kouame is just starting to scratch the surface [of his potential],” said Altamirano, who knows all about developing foreign players after sharing a special bond with longtime NU center Alfred Aroga.
“They have a veteran team so they’ll have a big chance they’ll be able to win it again next year unless there are teams that can overachieve. For now I can see them dominating college tournaments, including the UAAP,” he added.
For Altamirano, what makes the Blue Eagles stand out is how they continuously win games as a team. Sure, from time to time Ravena may go off and explode for 38 points, but compared to other great teams – this team isn’t the most talented.
But they more than make up for it by doing everything else.
“Compared sa ibang dynasties na nakikita ko, hindi sila kasing talented compared to the other teams. Let’s talk about the Ateneo team before na nag-five peat, if you can see that team meron kang (Greg) Slaughter, Kiefer Ravena, Nico Salva so it’s really deep,” Altamirano explained.
“Ngayon yes they’re talented but they’re not as talented as other teams, but they really play as a team and they’re well coached.”
But as the Blue Eagles continue to build their legacy, the road will only get tougher. Teams will be even more motivated to beat them as their targets on their back get bigger while their trophy cabinet gets larger and larger.
Being with a Red Lions side that has won 11 titles over the past 13 years in the NCAA, Fernandez knows all about that.
“Next year they’ll definitely have great competition. UP has Bright plus (Kobe) Paras and (Ricci) Rivero will come in. NU also has some very good teams and other teams talagang magpapalakas din, so they will definitely be challenged,” Fernandez said.
But is that enough to nip this growing dynasty in the bud? Fernandez doesn’t seem to think so.
“Again, with only one graduating player, I think they will have a very good run next season," said Fernandez.
At the end of the day, whether this Ateneo run leads to another dynasty or not, Baldwin insisted the end goal isn’t really winning all those championships.
“We want to pursue excellence. You know, a championship is one measure of excellence, I guess. So if that’s a by-product of the way that we do things, we hope that we continue to have championships in the future,” said Baldwin.
“We talk more about how each one of these guys can be the best player they can be. And it’s not just something we say for the media, it’s what we work on. It’s who we want to be. As long as one of the by-products continues to be championships, then I don’t think [Ateneo patron] MVP [Manny V. Pangilinan] is gonna tell us to do differently,” he added.
“He wants the championships, no doubt about that. We love to give that to him, but there’s a greater purpose to what we do.”
There will definitely be hurdles, but the key could be the decision of a 16-year old prodigy and his family.
Kai Sotto, a 7'2 Grade 10 student, is certainly the most coveted talent out of high school now and if he decides to stay put, then others teams will certainly have huge problems.
UP head coach Bo Peraso believes the Blue Eagles don’t even need Sotto to build a dynasty.
"If you talk about Ateneo building a dynasty - they're on their way to that. No question about that. It's really difficult to match up with them kahit may personnel ka. You need to have the experience together which no other team in the UAAP has right now," said Perasol.
"Hindi na nga kailangan si Kai doon e. Kung ilalagay mo pa si Kai doon alam mo na ang mangyayari," he added.
If the Blue Eagles manage to land the 'unicorn' who is already getting offers from Europe - it's certainly gonna be a long day for opponents trying to figure this team out.
Sotto would be possibly spending two years with Kouame, forming what's sure to be the tallest and what could be the most intimidating frontcourt in the UAAP.
That's a thought which played in Perasol's mind already.
"Yung competition magtitilt na talaga to their favor. Magiging mabigat na talaga yun," Perasol said.
"Si Kouame ilang taon pa yun dun diba? Di naman Mabagal si Kouame. So ibig sabihin pwede sila magsabay, so sino pa makakalusot doon? Paano mo ilulusot mga bulilit mo doon?" Perasol said.
But that's a problem for the future. The current task for teams right now, which is stopping this current Ateneo squad, is monumental in itself.
That's something that Perasol and six other coaches should be worrying about now.
"If that happens talagang it is to their favor and it is for the other teams to find a way to stop that. They are the standard. Sila talaga ang standard ng competition ng UAAP," Perasol said.
"The way I see it, it's a rushing train. Yun ang momentum ng Ateneo."