They would have been unlikely top picks just a few seasons back.
Yet here are National University and University of the East now, crowding the perennial favorites for the UAAP crown.
“I hope the tag as the team to beat can translate to wins,” said NU coach Eric Altamirano. “But it doesn’t work that way, we still have to prove ourselves. We really have to respect all the teams that we’re going to play.”
UE coach Boycie Zamar, who took over in the middle of the season last year, also feels a tad uncomfortable of his Warriors’ lofty billing.
“The reality is, we were seventh place last year,” said Zamar. “But of course I’ll be a hypocrite if I don’t say we’re targetting the Final Four. All coaches are targetting that.”
The Warriors hope to turn things around with explosive guard Roi Sumang and burly Sierra Leonean recruit Charles Mammie at the helm.
“We were a doughnut team before because we had no big man,” said Zamar. “We now have a center in Mammie. I think we’re ready.”
Bannered by two-time MVP Ray Parks, the Bulldogs also believe they have more to show after last season’s breakthrough run where they reached the Final Four for the first time in 11 years.
“We’re a year older so we’re hoping this time we’ll be more mature, more composed,” said Altamirano. “Last year there were a lot of games we felt namama kami (we were not as tough). But with a year behind us, maybe we’ve learned how to handle the pressure.”
Then there’s also easing the load off Parks with Cameroonian Emmanuel Mbe and compatriot and new recruit Alfred Aroga, guards Gelo Alolino and Robin Roño expected to play vital roles.
“Gelo Alolino, I really feel, is already ripe. I’m hoping he will exert himself this year,” said Altamirano. “This will be [Mbe’s] last year and we’re hoping he could help Ray in terms of being the go-to guys.”
“If there’s a year we can do it, I think this is the year,” said Altamirano.