[Editor's note: This is the first of our eight-part special preview for the UAAP men's basketball season]
Last Season: 8th Place (1-13)
Key Holdovers: Marvin Lee, Steve Akomo, Zachy Huang
Returnees: Renzo Subido, Embons Bonleon
Departures: Jordan Sta. Ana, Jeepy Faundo, Regie Basibas, Boy Sablan (coach)
Newcomers: CJ Cansino, Makoy Marcos, Ken Zamora
Head Coach: Aldin Ayo (1st season)
AFTER a horrific outing last season, University of Santo Tomas will be putting its fate on the broad shoulders of NCAA-UAAP champion coach Aldin Ayo as it tries to rise from the ashes.
History may be on their side as Ayo has won a title in his maiden year in every school that he’s handled in the collegiate ranks, starting with Letran in 2015 and La Salle in 2016.
But even Ayo himself will admit that this is a different story altogether.
“I don’t want to be conscious about it. It comes naturally,” Ayo said.
“Gusto lang namin mangyari mag-compete lang mag-compete hanggat sa makakaya namin. Ayaw namin maging conscious na after this season ano 'yung ma-achieve namin. We just want to do our best,” he added.
The words ‘tall order’ wouldn’t be enough to describe the mountain the Growling Tigers must climb come UAAP Season 81 – and in the words of Ayo himself, it’s basically a ‘Hail Mary’ season.
A lot of comparison have been made between this team and the Letran squad which Ayo led to a championship three years ago, given the underdog status of the two squads during the preseason.
But the comparison ends there, as Ayo’s biggest stars during that time at Letran - Mark Cruz and Kevin Racal - already had experience playing big minutes in the Finals – while his new leaders in Marvin Lee and Renzo Subido are still on the rise.
The pair, however, can’t wait to prove themselves this season.
“Para sa akin, another opportunity, parang redemption nga na sinasabi nila. Bagong sistema, bagong coach kasi grabe nga ang pinagdaanan namin last season. Tiwala lang kami sa sistema,” said Lee, one of four holdovers from last season’s squad.
“Siguro mas mag-compete yung team namin ngayon. Ang goal namin ngayon mag-compete at mapakita yung best namin. Yun lang. Bigay lang namin yung best namin,” he added.
Subido, on the other hand, was lucky enough not to be part of the Growling Tigers’ forgettable campaign last year as he decided to hone his talents in the PBA D-League with Marinerong Pilipino.
More mature and sharper than ever, Subido now wants to give back to his school.
“It feels great again, I’m very excited. Lagi akong naglo-look forward sa practice and to play for UST again,” Subido said.
“Nafi-feel ko na yung mga fans ng UST, inaabangan talaga yung magiging laro namin. Ako I just want to give back to them and masuklian yung support sa amin and that’s why I’m very excited this season,” he added.
While a lot is expected from his backcourt, Ayo doesn't want to put too much pressure on the duo. The first-year coach said ge expects everyone to pull their own weight during the campaign.
He’s just thankful that Lee and Subido have made his job easier by being role models to their younger teammates in accepting Ayo’s relentless ‘Mayhem’ system.
“They’re very supportive. Specially si Marvin, si Renzo yung dalawang maliit namin, dalawang beterano namin, sila yung nagse-set ng example and they’ve been guiding the rookies,” Ayo said.
“Not only as teammates but as big brothers. Gina-guide nila yung mga rookies, especially yung mga rookies na mabibigyan ng malalaking roles.”
This may not be a smooth ride for Ayo, and he knows it.
“We’re just gonna compete. We want to stay competitive. Hindi kami nagiisip ng resulta, one game at a time but we’re gonna do our best.”