THE banners have been unfurled, confetti had fallen, and the trophy awarded at the end of the Ateneo Blue Eagles’ fifth successive UAAP championship.
From here, it’s a whole new ballgame for college basketball’s most dominant team.
When the Blue Eagles wrap up the celebrations and turn their focus to the quest for a sixth successive championship, they will see that the picture no longer look so rosy. Gone will be two of their best players, the man who has called the shots for the school the past eight years, and the man who put it all together.
Ateneo officials, though, remain confident the Eagles will remain a force in the college league next season despite the departure of Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and two other regulars in the rotation, the exit of coach Norman Black, and the absence of erstwhile top patron Manny V. Pangilinan.
“Malakas pa rin kami,” Ateneo athletic director Ricky Palou told Spin.ph. “I’m sure we’ll make a good run at a sixth successive championship.”
Kiefer Ravena, arguably the best player in the league the past two seasons, and veteran Ryan Buenafe are expected to anchor the Eagles next season, but Palou admits the frontline is one problem they have to address following the exit of seniors Salva, the 6-11 Slaughter, and his chief back-up Justin Chua.
“That’s our weak point,” admitted Palou.
JP Erram is expected to inherit the starting center position with 6-4 Frank Golla. But the 6-7 Erram is coming off knee surgery after tearing his ACL near the end of the eliminations and won’t be back in action until April at the earliest.
“Ateneo will be hurting as far as bigs is concerned. But as far as guards and the wingmen, we will be very competitive,” said Black.
Palou said the school is looking to get a boost from a couple of players moving up from its ‘B’ team, making special mention of Chris Newsome who has completed the required two-year residency for overseas recruits. Newsome played three seasons with a US Division II school before joining the Eagles.
“We have some good recruits who have done residency,” said Black. “It will be up to the next coach to go out there and start recruiting because the foundation has been laid as far as the networks is concerned. College basketball is all about recruitment.”
On who that coach will be has yet to be settled.
Palou said the school is in the process of talking with a couple of prospects, with Sandy Arespacochaga at the top of the list.
Arespacochaga, a former Ateneo player and Black’s chief assistant over the last eight years, has declined the nomination in the past but Palou hopes they can convince him to take over.
“Siya naman talaga ang first choice namin,” Palou said.
Palou also hopes to sit down next week with Bo Perasol, who was signed to a three-year contract to take over from Black but found himself in limbo after the falling-out between Pangilinan and the school.
Recruitment also figures to be a problem without Pangilinan, whose support has started the renaissance of the school’s basketball program. But Palou remains confident Ateneo will be a major player in the recruitment market.
According to Palou, one player Ateneo hopes to sign is Dawn Ochea, a 6-3 forward from the Sacred Heart School-Ateneo de Cebu who was voted MVP after leading the school to the Cesafi juniors championship last month.
Granting the Eagles get the players that they want, Palou and Ravena expect the competition to be fiercer next season with UST keeping an almost intact lineup and arch-rival La Salle in the course of a massive buildup backed by tycoon Danding Cojuangco.
“It’s hard to say that we are going to win another championship,” said Ravena. “UST will be intact next year, La Salle will be there. We just have to dig deep. The next coach will continue what coach Norman did. If we stay healthy and have no injuries, we can compete. We’ll give it our best."