The NCAA couldn’t have picked a better game to resume action after a prolonged break.
Letran and San Beda breathe new fire into the league’s most heated rivalry when they collide on Saturday at the resumption of the men’s basketball tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Tipoff is set at 6 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s Finals.
The Knights, last year’s losing finalists, had been having a smooth ride to start the season before a determined University of Perpetual Help snapped a long winning streak or their best start since 2005.
The three-time defending champion Lions, on the other hand, have been slowly but surely regaining their fierce form since sustaining a stunning defeat at the hands of Lyceum.
Now knotted at the top with 7-1 win-loss cards, the archrivals are expected to go all out not only for the top spot in the standings, but bragging rights and school pride as well.
And something’s got to give.
“It’s the most anticipated game of the first round,” Lions star guard Baser Amer said on Friday. “The winner of the game will finish number one at the end of the first round, which will mean a lot to me, my team, and my community.”
The 66-80 loss to Perpetual that ended a seven-game winning streak gave the Knights a reminder who the best team in the league still is.
“We know that San Beda is still the number one team,” Knights coach Caloy Garcia said. “We just have to play harder.”
Garica, though, insists the pressure is still on the Lions, who are now the league’s hottest team with six straight victories.
“Actually, there’s no pressure really on us kasi we’re not even seeded at the start of the season,” Garcia, who took over from multi-titled Louie Alas this season, said. “We just have to come out more prepared and determined.”
The Lions will have their hands full against dynamic duo Raymond Almazan and Mark Cruz, as well as a proven supporting cast led by Kevin Racal and Rey Nambatac.
“It will be a tough match-up for us,” Lions coach Boyet Fernandez said. “Cruz has been playing well, Almazan is putting up MVP-like numbers.”
“But I do trust my boys,” Fernandez added. “If we continue to play the way we’ve been playing, I think we have a fair chance against Letran.”
Coming off a dominant 83-64 victory over undermanned San Sebastian, the Lions continue to lean on Nigerian slotman Ola Adeogun, versatile forward Art dela Cruz, and playmaker Amer.
Meanwhile, Arellano tries to arrest a four-game skid as it takes on Jose Rizal University earlier at 4 o’clock.
The Chiefs have so far been unable to live up to their tag as preseason favorites as they are near the cellar in ninth place with a 2-6 slate. They are in danger of going down the bottom as they face a fourth-running Bombers side that has won two straight games and five overall against three losses.