There was a time when National University's Bulldogs can't find a win. Now they can't seem to lose.
An 11-game sweep that ended with the school lifting the preseason Filoil Cup trophy marks a major transformation for the Bulldogs, who for so long have carried the tag as the UAAP's whipping boys.
The school's only UAAP title came in 1954 and, except for a brief period in the early nineties when they stumbled on future pro stars Danny Ildefonso and Lordy Tugade, had rarely contended for a championship.
Their last appearance in the Final Four dates back to 2001.
During their darkest days in the league in the early nineties, then coach Sonny Paguia - cornered by sports scribes in the dark hallways of the Rizal Coliseum after a rare win - was candid enough to admit that he couldn't for the life of him recall the last time the Bulldogs had won.
“Dati parang kami ang takot pagpasok sa court. But now, we have that confidence,” said new coach Eric Altamirano, who has been tasked to oversee the Bulldogs' revival.
The renaissance actually started last season when the school's new owners, the SM Group of Companies of the Sy family, committed their resources to reviving the Bulldogs basketball program.
Ray-Ray Parks, son of former PBA best import Bobby, was signed as the cornerstone of the line-up and several vital pieces have since come in to make NU one of the best teams in the league, at least on paper.
They fell short of making the Final Four last year but showed their readiness to launch a bigger push this season with their sweep of the Filoil Cup, beating some of college basketball's biggest teams along the way.
They capped that run with a 64-54 win over De La Salle in the finals on Monday.
Once one of the poorly funded basketball programs in the league, the Bulldogs have never had it any better and even enjoy 'homecourt advantage' at the Sy-owned MOA Arena, where most of the matches will be played this season.
On Wednesday, the Bulldogs had their first taste of the brand-new facility with Parks tweeting: "Morning practice headed to MOA...we the first team to get on that floor #blessed...time to see how our home court feels like."
Already, other teams are taking notice.
“NU will be a strong contender this year and they’ve proven that this summer,” said Norman Black, coach of fivepeat-seeking Ateneo which dropped a game to the Bulldogs in the preseason event.
Altamirano, however, has warned the Bulldogs not to get ahead of themselves.
“I know that this is only a preseason tournament so I told the boys that let’s use this championship to motivate ourselves to improve, not to relax and be complacent now. Come UAAP, zero-zero lahat,” said Altamirano.
The former PBA coach also warned that being among the pre-tournament favorites comes with a price.
“[Rivals] know now how to play us. Everybody is after us and they will be preparing for us. I think that’s also another motivating factor to improve and prepare very well for the UAAP season,” he said.
“But again, winning the Filoil doesn’t guarantee a Final Four. Other teams are as competitive as us. It just so happened that we were sharper during the summer.”