HOST Letran and last year’s losing finalist San Sebastian—with 28 championships between them—collide in an early showdown of favorites as the 88th NCAA Season rolls off with an explosive double-header today at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Three of the four teams that made the Final Four last season will be in action on opening-day, including the Knights and Stags who kick off hostilities shortly after the 4 p.m. opening ceremony that will highlight Letran’s rich history.
Jose Rizal U, which lost to eventual champ San Beda in the semifinals, tries to open its campaign on a positive note against a shorthanded Mapua squad at 7.
But spotlight will be on the host Knights, who boast of one of the strongest squads in years with several starters from the last two seasons returning to fuel their bid to end an eight-year wait for a title.
Letran coach Louie Alas has chosen to downplay his team’s chances, pointing to San Sebastian and San Beda as solid contenders for the title because of their experienced lineups.
Last year’s MVP Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang and Ronald Pascual are back for the Stags, who are hoping to reclaim the crown they last won two seasons ago.
Abueva and Sangalang are coming off fine campaigns in the PBA D-League, while Pascual recently recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for seven months.
Expectations will be high on Abueva, who had 18 double-doubles last season on his way to averaging 21 points and 13 rebounds that still wasn’t enough when the Stags rammed into a stronger San Beda squad in the finals.
With the improvement of pint-sized guard Mark Cruz, Alas now has the luxury of using son and star guard Kevin Alas off the bench.
Still, Alas said the Knights’ success will depend on how they will deal with the trio of Abueva, Sangalang and Pascual.
“If we stop them, I think we will have a good chance,” said Alas.
The frontline also looks formidable for the Knights with Jonathan Belorio and Jam Cortes, as well as big man Raymund Almazan manning the paint.
Up until two seasons ago, the Knights held the record for the most NCAA titles with 16, before San Beda leapfrogged past them with back-to-back crowns.
Its roster hit by suspensions, San Beda gets going tomorrow when the Lions clash against Arellano.
The Bombers finished strong last season to sneak into the Final Four with Nate Matute, John Lopez and Alex Almario leading the holdovers this time.
The Cardinals have a tough campaign ahead following the departure of big man Yousif Taha and the disqualification of four recruits due to eligibility issues.