TWO slow-starting teams try to fast-track their respective campaigns in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Monday at The Arena in San Juan.
Coming off breakthrough victories after dropping their first two assignments in Season 90, Letran and Jose Rizal University tangle at 2 p.m., seeking to get back to the .500 mark and establish their first winning streaks in the competition.
The Knights, last year’s runners-up, have reeled from the departure of Season 89 MVP Raymond Almazan in their first two games before finally barging into the win column with a 79-67 decision over Mapua last Wednesday.
Kevin Racal has been doing it all for the Knights, with the veteran small forward averaging 19 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds so far, while pint-sized point guard Mark Cruz has slowly regained his fine playmaking form.
“Kailangan lang talaga mag-step up,” Racal said. “Hindi lang scoring at rebounding, pati yung communication sa loob ng court.”
Without Almazan - the league’s top local big man last year, the Knights have been relying on a collective effort from their undersized big men in Ford Ruaya and Jamil Gabawan, along with Rey Publico to do the dirty work down low.
And surprisingly, the Knights have made up for the void, emerging third-best in the league in rebounds with an average of 44.3 in their first three games.
“Ang puso nila sobrang laki,” said Heavy Bombers coach Vergel Meneses, whose big man woes have been eased with Ghanaian slotman Razak Abdul Wahab in tow. “We have to match that and their intensity level.”
“Depensa pa rin ang magpapanalo sa amin,” added the fiery mentor, whose team is third in the league in opponents’ field-goal shooting (40.8 percent) and opponents’ points, limiting foes to just 68.7 points.
Behind power forward Michael Mabulac and rookie guard Tey Teodoro, the Bombers flashed the defensive intensity that was lacking in their first two games in their 69-61 win over College of St. Benilde last Monday.
Lyceum, tied with Letran and JRU with similar 1-2 (win-loss) cards, takes on the winless Cardinals (0-3) in the second game at 4 p.m.