It has been a while since Ateneo hasn’t been picked as the No. 1 team in the UAAP men’s basketball tournament.
So preseason favorite National University and the emerging University of the East hope to take advantage of it when Season 76 unfolds this Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena.
“We’re really humbled and grateful for getting tagged as the team to beat,” said NU coach Eric Altamirano. “I told the boys we have to embrace it. If there’s a year that we can do it, this is the year. With the graduation of Ateneo’s [star] players, the playing field has evened out.”
With two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Ray Parks now backed by a more experienced cast, the Bulldogs have been the consensus favorite in the eight-team field.
The Warriors, too, have been tipped to land in the top four following their surprise preseason title romp behind the leadership of Roi Sumang and Sierra Leone-born center Charles Mammie.
“For us to be included as a contender, we’re flattered but we should not be contented,” UE coach Boycie Zamar said during the league’s press conference yesterday at MOA Arena.
New Ateneo coach Bo Perasol said, though, that pressure isn’t any less even if tougher teams stand in the way of their quest for a sixth straight championship.
“One thing I can bring to the table is make my team understand that despite the odds, they can still win,” said Perasol, who’s banking on star guard Kiefer Ravena.
The coaches agreed that unlike the past seasons, virtually each team has a shot at going all the way.
“I’m both excited and nervous,” said Adamson coach Leo Austria. “Excited because we have a chance to win the championship, but also nervous because any team can beat any team.”
“It’s a more balanced season,” added new Far Eastern University mentor Nash Racela. “On our end, I’m just happy with our development and that we’re taking the right steps in the right direction.”
La Salle will also sport a new coach, but unlike Racela, Juno Sauler didn’t have the luxury of time as he only took over Gee Abanilla three weeks ago.
“We just made the most out of it,” said Sauler.
“It’s harder for us because under their new coach, we haven’t seen [the Archers] play,” said Pido Jarencio as his veteran University of Santo Tomas crew, last season’s runner-up, clashes with La Salle on opening day at 4 p.m.
The Warriors and the Tamaraws battle at 2 p.m., right after the 12:30 p.m. opening ceremony presented by host Adamson.
“Half of my team is new,” said University of the Philippines coach Ricky Dandan. “We are the underdogs, but in UP, we have taken the attitude to play hard every game.”