TWO teams with different backgrounds eye the same goal as the NCAA men’s basketball Finals unfurl at the Mall of Asia Arena.
San Beda is aiming to stamp its class anew with a fifth straight title and eighth in the last nine years, while Arellano is seizing the moment in its maiden Finals stint.
Except for the Lions’ playoff for top-seeding win over the Chiefs, both teams split their head-to-head meetings this season, and ended up tied with a 13-5 record in the elimination round. They also bank on their defense to win games, with the Lions leaning on a lockdown defense to limit opponents to just 66.7 points and the Chiefs clinging on a suffocating press that forced foes to commit 21.4 turnovers per game this season.
So something has got to give.
Three coaches around the league in Jose Rizal University’s Vergel Meneses and former Emilio Aguinaldo College and Lyceum coaches Gerry Esplana and Bonnie Tan pointed out each team's strengths.
They believe San Beda will once again rely on its powerhouse lineup and dig deep from its vast treasure chest of experience, while Arellano has a loaded backcourt, can create matchup problems, and will thrive in pressure-packed games.
Take a closer look.
Esplana and Tan, who have more time in their hands after their recent departures, broke down the matchups and believe the Chiefs have the edge in the guard position, where they have Most Improved Player Jiovani Jalalon, John Pinto, Levi Hernandez, and Donald Gumaru against the Lions’ Baser Amer, Radge Tongco, and Ryusei Koga.
“I believe AU has the most talented and deepest backcourt in the league,” Esplana said.
“May advantage ang Arellano kay Pinto,” Tan said of the PBA-bound playmaker.
But it appears the Lions are ahead in the forward spot, with Art dela Cruz, Jaypee Mendoza, and the Semerad twins going up against the Chiefs’ Keith Agovida, Ralph Salcedo, Allen Enriquez, and Ice Ciriacruz.
“SBC will have a slight advantage in the forward position with their depth and experience,” Esplana said.
Looking at the big men, the Lions have the edge if they dump the ball down low to Ola Adeogun, who will be backed up by Kyle Pascual, but the Chiefs can spread the floor with Dioncee Holts, supported by Prince Caperal, also a long-range threat.
“With Ola, you always have an advantage, but SBC will encounter some matchup problems with Holts because of his perimeter and three-point shooting,” Esplana said of the American Holts, the newly minted Rookie of the Year.
“Improving yung perimeter shooting tsaka yung confidence level tumataas (ni Holts),” Tan said. “Kaya if he keeps playing that way, Arellano can snatch Game One.”
“It’s going to be a battle of execution,” Meneses said.
The coaching matchup will also be crucial. The Chiefs’ Jerry Codiñera is untested at this stage, while the Lions’ Boyet Fernandez has won in all levels as a coach. But the latter is expected to be in a lot of pressure with the imminent transition to NLEX in the pros also in his mind.
“Si coach Boyet nasa PBA na, so hating-hati ang utak niyan,” Tan said.
San Beda has been dominant most of the season. But when the going got tough, it’s seemed it was Arellano that got going, evidenced by its performance in grind-out battles.
“Kasi ang San Beda hindi sanay madikitan eh,” Tan said. “Tingin ko pag pinadikit nila ang Arellano, baka maka-silat ang Arellano.”
In fact, Arellano has a 5-1 win-loss record in games decided by three points or less, while San Beda is just 1-2 under the same parameter this season. The Lions usually win by a mile, posting an impressive winning margin of 16.3 points in their 15 games, including the playoff and Final Four, but the powerhouse squad looks vulnerable in down-the-wire games. Their closest win was a 77-75 decision against Perpetual Help in the first round.
“One thing that will carry us is yung ang dami naming napanalong close games,” Codiñera said. “And this team is built for that, yung high-pressure ballgames. That will fuel us against San Beda.”
Bottom line, it’s still the experience at this stage that will prove to be the biggest difference for the Lions, who are in their ninth straight finals appearance, against a finals greenhorn in the Chiefs.
“Yung Arellano nothing to lose, but for me, llamado pa rin ang San Beda,” Tan said.
Esplana offered the same forecast.
“San Beda in three games because of their championship experience and their familiarity of coach Boyet Fernandez’s system.”
While they have veteran, PBA D-League-toughened players like Pinto, the Chiefs haven’t made it this far in the NCAA before since joining the league in 2009.
“I think experience parehas lang eh; sila Pinto, Caperal beterano na rin yan, tsaka maganda yung improvement nung Jalalon. Pero yung championship experience, Beda,” Meneses said.
Meneses, though, is torn on who to root for between the two coaches.
“I hope he gets a championship,” he said of close friend Codiñera. “Kaya lang parehas ko silang kaibigan. Teammate ko rin yung nasa kabila (Fernandez).”
“Kung sino na lang yung suwerterhin.”