THE IRONY of the second game of the final classification day of the UAAP basketball tournament is that last year’s finalists find themselves battling for survival.
Ateneo and University of Santo Tomas are locked in a winner-take-all showdown where the victor has a chance to face top finisher National U in the first round of the Final Four.
La Salle, which swept the second round, is set for a duel with early pacesetter Far Eastern U in what is to be a best-of-three for a finals slot.
At first glance, it may seem that the two oldest universities in the country sort of slipped this season. It was more of groping for form.
For UST, it had to buck injuries, especially to Jeric Teng, and some close games that could have gone either way. On the other hand, the defending champion Blue Eagles got into a getting-to-know-you season with new mentor Bo Perasol and tried to carry on without key players like Nico Salva and Greg Slaughter.
But the other way to look at it is that somehow, the programs of UST and Ateneo are still viable despite the adversities they faced because they are still contenders. That’s why a program needs to be set in place where recruitment, training and player development are geared towards achieving viable goals.
The turnaround program this season was that of La Salle that had the financial support of Ambassador Danding Cojuangco and a developmental approach to player improvement. The hiring of Jun Limpot and Allan Caidic improved specific areas of the team which in a way are crucial in the frenetic college game.
Limpot clearly helped the post play of Arnold Van Opstal and Norbert Torres. They now have better low-post moves that allow them to score on the first option or on follow-ups. Caidic’s presence has given the Green Archers a shooting coach and La Salle has definitely improved its confidence to hoist the ball from beyond the arc.
Juno Sauler, the hardworking assistant in the San Miguel group of basketball teams and who was thrust into the La Salle head coaching job a few days before the season opened, was precise when he would repeatedly say that the team’s goal was to improve in each game.
The sweep was a testimony to that steady development and the Green Archers find themselves in a good position to contend for the title.
The final stretch should be interesting, no matter what happens in the Ateneo-UST game.
NU will be tested if it can win the big games in the Final Four when the pressure is really on. For now, the Bulldogs are out of that part of their sports history where they were a perennial also-ran and, true enough, the whipping dog of the rest of the league. Not anymore.
A program also improved NU’s stock and they should be a serious contender in the next couple of years.
Teams that struggled this season like Adamson, University of the Philippines and, to an extent, University of the East will have a lot of soul-searching and drawing-board work to do when the season ends.
UE had some sterling moments this season and could use that to build for the future. Adamson will make a coaching change while UP needs to search for a new way to participate in the basketball tournament.
A program may start and end with the hiring of a coach. But it has to have a vision and a game plan to execute it as well.