FOR the third straight year, San Beda finds itself in a familiar spot to start the NCAA season: A heavy favorite looking to immediately underline its title credentials.
Hard-pressed to maintain a winning tradition, the Red Lions start their quest for a fourth straight NCAA men’s basketball crown against Season 89 host St. Benilde today at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Letran, last season’s surprise finalist, also opens its campaign at 6 p.m. against a San Sebastian team moving forward from its “Big 3” era.
St. Benilde has prepared an elaborate opening ceremony at 2:30 p.m. as the Taft Avenue-based school braces for its first hosting job since 2006.
But the spotlight will be on the Lions and how they will cope with the pressure of sustaining a remarkable run that has seen them rule six of the last seven seasons. The sensational streak has boosted San Beda to the top of the NCAA record books with 17 seniors titles, eclipsing Letran last season.
“There’s a lot of pressure on us,” said San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez, one of the league’s four new mentors this season. “It’s a given especially when you’re coming from a championship.”
There’s no shortage of standouts in San Beda with Rome dela Rosa and Kyle Pascual assuming leadership roles and center Ola Adeogun and point guard Baser Amer tipped as one of the best in their positions in the league.
The Lions also welcome the return of twins Anthony and David Semerad, who were instrumental in the 2011 title run but skipped last year’s tournament.
The Blazers have a new coach in Gabby Velasco and enter the season without a legitimate go-to gunner unlike last year when they had Carlo Lastimosa.
“There are a lot of changes in the team, especially with the system,” said Velasco, who won seven titles as coach of St. Francis in the NCRAA. “We have lost to San Beda many times in the past few years. I hope we learn something from those losses.”
Both the Knights and Stags, the third-placed team last year, absorbed key manpower losses during the offseason. San Sebastian was dealt a huge blow after center Ian Sangalang opted not to play anymore, joining Ronald Pascual and Calvin Abueva who have already used up their playing years.
“We’re used to have three guys carrying the load for us but now it’s going to be a collective effort to win games,” said returning Stags coach Topex Robinson. “But we have a good team and the players take pride playing for the Stags.”
The Stags will pin their hopes on rookie CJ Perez and veteran Jovit dela Cruz, who was part of the team that reached the finals in 2010 and 2011.
The Knights lost Kevin Alas who decided to forego his final year of eligibility. But coach Caloy Garcia managed to keep Raymund Almazan, who will join forces with rookie Rey Nambatac, Kevin Racal and Mark Cruz.
“I think if they believe in the system and in themselves we have a good chance,” said Garcia.
The Knights outlasted the Stags, 96-94, in overtime in their only preseason meeting.