Two of the league’s top point guards are set to go under the microscope when Letran and Arellano square off on Monday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at The Arena in San Juan.
Mark Cruz tries to lead the Knights in regaining a share of the lead with archrival San Beda, while Nard Pinto seeks to help the Chiefs keep their fading Final Four hopes alive as both teams collide at 4 p.m.
Small in size but big in heart, the 5-foot-5 Cruz has proven to be the straw that stirs the Knights and has formed a deadly combination with leading MVP candidate Raymond Almazan.
Cruz’s importance was underscored in the dying seconds of Letran’s shock 76-80 loss to Lyceum more than a week ago when the Knights sorely missed a playmaker who would steady the ship while he sat it out.
“The struggle that we have is when Mark goes to the bench,” Knights coach Caloy Garcia admitted. “That’s why we have to give opportunities to other players because they have to learn. Hindi naman pwede umasa kami lagi kay Mark.”
Against the Pirates, Cruz had only eight minutes of rest and finished with 17 points, six boards, four assists for the Knights, who suffered only their second loss in 11 games.
On the other hand, Pinto was one of the top rookies last year and was primed for a breakout year this season following the departure of veteran guards Rocky Acidre and Vergel Zulueta.
Although his performance has left much to be desired early in the season, the 22-year-old pride of Davao finally broke out of his “sophomore slump” when he fired 11 of his 15 points, including the game-winning jumper in their 76-75 win over Lyceum last Thursday.
“Kahit na-depensahan si John, andun pa rin siya, hindi siya nag-duda,” Chiefs coach Koy Banal said. “Sabi ko sa kanya i-laro mo yung anong gusto mong laro kasi baka napipigilan na kita.”
“I hope John has come out of his shell,” added Banal, whose wards seek a fifth win in 13 games that would move them up slightly to solo eighth place. “This could be the start.”
Meanwhile, University of Perpetual Help tries to keep in step with the leaders as it takes on struggling Jose Rizal University in the second game at 6 o’clock.
The Altas, just a half-game behind Letran with a 9-3 win-loss card, face a fifth-running Bombers side that aims to break a three-game losing streak and notch a sixth win in 12 games to firmly stay in the running for a semifinal spot.