SATURDAY afternoon's do-or-die match against University of Santo Tomas will be one of the biggest games the National University Bulldogs will play in its recent history.
The stakes could be bigger for coach Eric Altamirano.
This UAAP basketball season marks the third year of a three-year program Altamirano had charted for the Bulldogs when he took over in 2011, and the end result could very well dictate the future direction of the team under an ambitious leadership - and the fate of its coach.
The Bulldogs last won a UAAP championship in 1954 and have not reached the Finals since 1970, but expectations have risen in the school's Sampaloc campus when this year's team entered the Final Four as the top seed - a first for NU since the knockout format was instituted in 1994.
However, a 62-71 loss to fourth seed University of Santo Tomas on Sunday has threatened to deny the Bulldogs a trip to the Finals and undo all the gains Altamirano has made with arguably the best team NU has put together in decades, at least on paper.
That makes Saturday's rubber match against UST a must-win not only for the Bulldogs but more so for Altamirano if he hopes to hold on to the NU job, insiders said.
“Ito na kasi ang culmination 'nung three-year program namin. Very important sa amin ang basketball kasi it is the pinnacle of the UAAP. So we have to win it this year,” said an NU source.
Altamirano has won two PBA championships with Purefoods and Mobiline (now Talk 'N Text), and this year marks the closest he has come to a UAAP title since he was hired by the new owners of NU, the Sy family, to reinvigorate what until then had been a moribund basketball program.
Insiders said team patron Hans Sy has gone out of his way to make sure all the team's needs are attended to and is a fixture at the dugout before games.
At the same time, sources said success in women's volleyball and cheerdance has raised expectations on the basketball team - and failure may see the team head in a new direction under a new stewardship, the source added.
“Si boss Hans Sy is always in the dugout before games. Hands-on talaga si boss. He wants to make sure na well attended to ang team sa lahat ng needs,” said the source. “Lagi niyang kinakausap ang team.”
“So 'yun lang talaga ang challenge ngayon … Nagkataon pa na si Mr. Sy eh talagang aggressive to win. He is such a perfectionist,” the source added.
This early, sources said NU is already looking at different options, among them current Air21 Express coach Franz Pumaren who happens to own one of the most glowing track records in college basketball.
The former De La Salle coach is under contract with the Air21 Express until the end of next PBA season in July 2014, which is almost the same time as the scheduled tip-off of UAAP Season 77.
“'Yan ang nasa plano. Pero knowing management, pasensyoso naman sila,” said the source.
“Merun pa namang tsansa. Mr. Sy is the type of boss who will give his men a chance to make up and redeem themselves. He also gives the program and the team the opportunity to develop,” said another source.