ALL eyes will definitely be on Ben Mbala when La Salle’s athletic big man makes his long-anticipated UAAP Season 79 debut against Far Eastern University on Wednesday.
In fact, even before the new season unfolds, Mbala is already a marked man for some coaches.
"Mbala ng La Salle (yung player to watch this season), hindi mawawala yan. All eyes on Mbala," said new University of Santo Tomas coach Boy Sablan of the Cameroonian, who steered the Green Archers to the Filoil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup championship last summer.
New University of the Philippines mentor Bo Perasol agreed, adding that the UAAP MVP will most likely come from La Salle, the team seen as the favorite to win the title by all the coaches during the press conference on Tuesday.
"Yan yung dominant player natin ngayong season," Perasol said.
Even Mbala’s teammate Jeron Teng is expecting big contributions from the Filoil MVP in their championship bid.
"He's really gonna be a big factor. Super big," said Teng.
But aside from Mbala, some coaches took note of other names who might have their own breakout seasons this year: FEU's Raymar Jose, UST's Louie Vigil, Ateneo's Thirdy Ravena, and NU’s JV Gallego.
You can't count out the defending champion FEU team just yet even without Mike Tolomia, Mac Belo, and Roger Pogoy. Under Raymar Jose's leadership, the Tamaraws remain as dangerous as ever.
In fact, FEU recently made things rough for the Iran-bound Gilas 5.0 team in their two tune-up games, with Jose at the forefront of their offense.
The burly forward was also instrumental in Phoenix's 2016 PBA D-League Foundation Cup championship conquest. He played only in the final game, but had quality minutes in helping the Accelerators dispose Tanduay in the title decider.
Expect Louie Vigil to put up MVP numbers for the UST Growling Tigers who lost stars Kevin Ferrer, Karim Abdul, and Ed Daquioag to graduation.
Vigil is out to prove that there is life after Ferrer and Co., and his coach believes the sweet-shooting guard can do that. After all, the former NCAA juniors MVP has yet to show his true form in the league.
"Sabi ng mga players, mas magaling si Louie ngayon compared sa previous seasons niya. Iba yung leadership na binibigay nya this year," said Sablan.
Thirdy Ravena has a lot to prove, especially as he’s tasked to lead Ateneo forward after the stellar Blue Eagles stint of his brother and two-time UAAP MVP Kiefer.
The high-leaping Thirdy, though, will find no better person to learn on how to lead the young Ateneo squad than Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin, who is part of the Blue Eagles coaching staff this season.
Ravena recently paced the Blue Eagles in a narrow 69-63 loss to Gilas in a tune-up game. And if his performance in Monday's match was any indication, then we can expect Ravena to live up to his name.
NU rookie JV Gallego is largely unknown among UAAP fans. But other UAAP teams know him well as he is one of the blue-chip recruits from Chiang Kai Shek College.
The National Basketball Training Center (NBTC) MVP is expected to fill the void left by ace point guard Gelo Alolino, and defending champion FEU coach Nash Racela thinks he will do well.
"Hindi ko masyado nasusubaybayan yung ibang players. Pero na-impress ako sa NU kay Gallego. I think he's one of the players to look out for sa UAAP," said Racela of the 5-10 playmaker, who will team up with veteran J-Jay Alejandro.