Powerhouse teams San Sebastian College and Letran test each other’s mettle when they collide on Saturday to open the 88th NCAA men’s basketball tournament at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Stags and Knights, who meet at 5 p.m., came up short last season after finishing second and third, respectively, to champion San Beda.
But with both teams parading intact lineups and the Lions in a transition year, a clear-cut title favorite has yet to be determined.
“It’s going to be a competitive year,” Knights coach Louie Alas said during the media launch of the tournament last Wednesday.
Before the opening double-header, a colorful opening ceremony will be staged beginning at 4 p.m.
The two teams last met in the Final Four last season where the second-seeded Stags squandered their twice-to-beat advantage before beating the Knights in the decider to advance to the title series.
The Stags boast of their “Pinatubo Trio” of Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang, and Ronald Pascual, and will also rely on Jovit dela Cruz, Dexter Maiquez, and Michael Miranda. SSC also has two notable rookies in Paulino Rebollos and Michael Juico.
Letran, this year’s host, has no Big Three but has two mythical team members in Kevin Alas and Raymond Almazan. The Knights also have a stellar supporting cast led by Mark Cruz, Jam Cortes, Jonathan Belorio, and Kevin Racal.
In the nightcap at 7 p.m., Jose Rizal University takes on Mapua Institute of Technology in a battle of Final Four contenders.
The Bombers have no bonafide star but have a hard-working, defensive-minded bunch of guys who get the job done.
The Cardinals, for their part, have last season’s Rookie of the Year Josan Nimes. But their campaign has also suffered a snag with 6-foot-7 Yousef Taha not in the lineup as he’s still in the United States taking care of personal matters.