Season Preview Part One
by Sid Ventura of UBelt.com
A fellow sportswriter who covers the UAAP beat for one of the country’s leading broadsheets sent me an interesting text message the other day. I’ve since deleted it as part of my daily routine, but he essentially said that this year’s UAAP basketball season would perhaps feature the most balanced competition the league has seen in a long time.
I have to agree. There’s no clear-cut heavy favorite, and at the same time you can’t write anyone off, either. In fact, I’m expecting the fifth- to seventh-placers to finish just a game or two outside the Final Four. Of course, I have to throw in the usual disclaimer about no major injuries or last-minute eligibility issues cropping up.
Aside from a pretty balanced filed, I’m looking forward to this season for two more reasons. One, I think we have the most talented freshman class since 2003. And by freshman I mean UAAP Board-definition freshman, i.e., those straight out of high school. The class of ’03 had Ken Bono, Marvin Cruz, JV Casio, Patrick Cabahug, Roel Hugnatan, and Chris Tiu, among others. The class of ’07, in my opinion, is equally talented. Heck, they might even be more talented: Kirk Long, Bacon Austria, Mike Gamboa, Soc Rivera, Mark Lopez, Ferdinand, Julius Wong, Jeff Olalia. These guys are all legitimate blue-chip recruits.
Two, we’re one big, happy family again. La Salle is back after that PEP test fiasco, and you can bet the farm they’ll be out to prove something.
As usual, I’ll be giving my team-by-team preview in alphabetical order, two teams per week. I’ll start off this week, then, with Adamson and Ateneo.
No mo’ Bono.
Adamson University Soaring Falcons
Coach: William “Bogs” Adornado
Assistants: Jing Ruiz and Mon Santos
PG Jerick Cañada, PF Jan Julius Colina, SF Francisco dela Paz, SF Jonas Lozada, SG Aldrin Margallo, and PF Jeff Olalia.
: Coach Leo Austria, SF Marc Agustin, PF/C Arold Basilio, C Ken Bono, SG JB Orera, SG Mico Pacheco, PG Marvin Poloyapoy, and PG/SG Mike Yong
Line-up as of June 13:
Patrick Cabahug - 6’2”
Jerick Cañada - 5’8”
Leo Canuday - 5’10”
Jan Julius Colina - 6’3”
Francisco dela Paz – 6’1”
Paul Gonzalgo – 5’9”
Reynaldo Gorospe – 6’4”
Roel Hugnatan – 6’5”
Jonas Lozada – 6’2”
Aldrin Margallo – 6’0”
Jeff Olalia – 6’0”
Allan Dominic Santos – 6’4”
Junard Yambot – 6’2”
(note: the coaching staff is still evaluating whether to fill up the rexamining two slots, and if so, which player or players to tap.)
Another year, another coach. The Falcons enter Season 70 with their fourth head coach in as many years. And although new coach Bogs Adornado was an assistant to Leo Austria last year, it hardly guarantees a smooth transition. For one thing, Ken Bono is gone, apparently not wanting to have anything to do with starting over again with a new coach. For another, can you blame him? Almost half these guys are new.
But Adornado doesn’t think they’re all that bad.
“We have a program that we’re following,” the three-time PBA MVP told me. “We still run some of the patterns of Leo. It’s still there. Nadagdagan lang ng kaunti.”
So is duplicating last year’s stirring run still possible?
“I just hope so, ma-reach man lang naming ang fourth. But as you know, Bono is no longer around.”
Which means sweet-shooting Patrick Cabahug is now the Falcons’ main man. Adornado himself admitted that with Bono gone, their inside game went from dominating to virtually non-existent. Roel Hugnatan is still there, but he will be hardpressed to man the post since his fellow frontliners – Allan Santos, Rey Gorospe plus greenhorn Julius Colina – are serviceable at best.
Cabahug averaged 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds last season, and he must surpass those numbers this year if the Falcons are to have any chance. He should easily average at least 15 points a game. With another season’s worth of PBL experience, expect him to be among the league’s top three scorers.
Another veteran – Leo Canuday – is thankfully back at full strength after that unspeakable freak elbow injury he suffered last year, the memory of which still makes me cringe. Canuday will be leading a young guard corps composed of promising point guard Jerick Cañada, offguard Aldrin Margallo, and sophomore Paul Gonzalgo. But promising as they are, these guys are hardly among the league’s elite. A fifth guard, Mico Pacheco, sadly will miss the entire season after falling victim to a group of holduppers who smashed his jaw. Pacheco, a talented and athletic shooter, was supposed to have played a bigger role this coming season, and his loss, while not comparable to that of Bono’s, will hurt nonetheless. Additionally, Marc Agustin re-injured his knee and will sit out the season as well. The Falcons will no doubt miss his….what, exactly?
Adornado is pretty high on Cañada, a find from Cebu who is a major upgrade over Marvin Poloyapoy (then again, who isn’t?), and Margallo, a six-foot guard who hails from Samar.
“Na-develop lang itong mga ito from our Team B,” he says, with a hint of pride in his voice.” Wala kaming Class A player from other schools na ready to play. We have to develop our own talents.”
A last-minute addition who could prove to be a future star is Olalia, the ex-Baby Falcon who averaged 14.1 points and 11.2 rebounds as a power forward for the jayvee last season. But standing just a shade over six feet, he may need to adjust first to playing small forward.
Overall, though, I don’t see the Falcons marching back to the Final Four. The loss of Bono will be difficult to overcome, and Adornado simply doesn’t have enough talent to work with, nor enough time to harness whatever talent he does have. Adamson will be lucky to finish fifth.
Adornado also thinks this year will see several teams slug it out for top honors.
“UST, UE, even La Salle has a strong line-up. And even Ateneo, everybody. Sa akin, ang dark horse is NU, because they’re still intact. In fact, nadagdagan pa sila.”
Black Takes Another Crack
Ateneo De Manila University Blue Eagles
Coach: Norman Black
Assistant: Sandy Arrespacochaga, Gabby Severino, Jamike Jarin and Gene Afable
Additions: Assistant coach Gene Afable, SF Bacon Austria, PF Nonoy Baclao, SG/SF Kirk Long, and PF Jobe Nkemakolam
Subtractions: PG Macky Escalona, SF/PF JC Intal, PF Doug Kramer, and SF Johann Uichico
Line-up as of June 13:
Rabah Al-Hussaini – 6’7”
Raymond Austria - 6’2”
Claiford Arao – 6’5”
Severino Baclao - 6’4”
Ken Joseph Barracoso - 6’2”
Yuri Escueta - 5’8”
Zion Laterre - 6’3”
Kirk Long - 6’0”
Eman Monfort - 5’7”
Jobe Nkemakolam 6’3”
Martin Quimson - 6’5”
Jose Antonio Reyes - 5’8”
Eric Salamat - 5’10”
Christopher John Tiu - 5’10”
(note: the 15th and final slot is still being contested by Chris Sumalinog and Jeff De Guzman)
After being the number one team they were ticketed to be throughout the elimination round, Ateneo’s loss to UST in the championship series was viewed by some as a disappointing end to a season of high hopes. But don’t tell that to Norman Black.
“Well, actually, last year was not disappointing. We did make it to the championship. That was much better than all the other teams except for UST,” Black told me matter-of-factly.
“Of course, we came up short in the championship series, so that hurt,” the multi-titled coach continued. “But overall, I think my players performed well. They won a lot of games and they had an opportunity to win the championship.”
But with JC Intal, Doug Kramer and Macky Escalona all gone, is there a chance to even duplicate last year’s finish?
“Losing players is part of the game. That’s part of college basketball. I lost L.A. the year before, and you asked me the same question: ‘How are you guys gonna perform this year with the loss of Magnum and L.A.?’
“And we showed you that we could still be competitive with anybody in the league. I expect that to happen again this year.”
And Black says you only need to look at their pre-season performances for proof.
“We’ve won like 24 straight games this off-season. We won the Fr. Martin Cup against San Beda, we swept our games in the Nike league. So I know a lot of people think that Ateneo won’t be very good this year. That’s okay. We’ve shown that we can be very competitive with all the top college teams in the country during the off-season.
“Will that lead to a championship or championship appearance again? Well, we have some players that are quite young, that we are really trying to develop right now, so we’ll have to wait and see.”
By young players, Black is referring to the 18-year-old Rabah Al-Hussaini, 18-year-old Eric Salamat, and 17-year-old Long, all of whom are expected to be major parts of the rotation.
Depending on the match-up, Salamat will either back up veteran Chris Tiu or play alongside him, while Long has the ability to play the one, two, and three positions. In the pre-season games I’ve seen, he has come off the bench for Ken Barracoso at the three spot. Eman Monfort, that gnome of a shooter whom you’d half-expect to be fetched by Snow White after each game, will also probably see some minutes as a two-guard off the bench.
Long should see time at the point guard spot, though, since this is now the Blue Eagles’ weakest point. Intal may have finished runner-up in the MVP race, and Kramer may have been their best rebounder, but methinks it is Escalona’s contributions that will be most difficult to replace, perhaps more on defense than on offense. Yuri Escueta was Escalona’s back-up last season, but it’s obvious he is nowhere near Escalona’s skill level on both ends of the court. And will someone please tell Black that Jai Reyes will never be a point guard?
Al Hussaini will lead a frontline that boasts of three other players standing at least six-four: Ford Arao, Martin Quimson and rookie transferee Nonoy Baclao. While Arao and Quimson will never strike fear into the heart of Jervy Cruz, they are veterans who can give some quality minutes. Baclao should also contribute as well. Plus the returning Jobe Nkemakolam, immensely talented but until recently totally unmotivated, has finally decided to take basketball seriously and will be dangerous in the shaded area.
But even with all these tall players at his disposal, Black knows his team’s ultimate strength.
“We’ll probably be set very much the same as last year, where we ended up number two in scoring and number two in defense. So there won’t be much change as far as philosophy is concerned.
“We have some size that we can use. But at the same time, a lot of our game will probably be centered on Chris and his ability to score.”
Indeed, Tiu is Black’s best offensive weapon, a savvy veteran who is always deadly from the outside but who can also put the ball on the floor. I expect him to be among the top two or three shooting guards this year, along with Jojo Duncil and Marcy Arellano.
Just like Adornado, Black foresees a tight race to the Final Four.
“I don’t think there are gonna be any easy teams for us in the UAAP, at least not this year. But I would imagine La Salle’s gonna be very tough. UST, being the champions. UE, I would probably say are the favorites right now. Each team’s gonna be a very difficult outing for (the other team).”
Bottomline: Ateneo is still a Final Four team, but from there it will get tough.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the comeback kids from La Salle and the new-look FEU crew.