Four to watch out for in the UAAP Final Four
MANILA—Heroes—and hero-worship—are forged through the fires of the Final Four, where hoop heroics are not only celebrated, but woven into the rich fabric of the country’s basketball history.
This year’s UAAP season won’t be an exception. Beneath the surface of all the pre-semifinal hype, waiting to burst out in the open, are four players who could very well swing the fortunes of their squads.
From the team picked to rule them all to the outsider that crashed the Final Four party—and the dangerous dark horses in between—the fate of the squads gunning for college basketball’s ultimate prize could very well lie in the hands of these four stars.
One play, one split-second moment of decision-making, is all it takes for these four players to spell the difference between triumph and torment.
1. GREG SLAUGHTER
No doubt, the Ateneo center is the biggest guy in the Final Four—literally or otherwise.
Although the former Cebu college star shares the Blue Eagles limelight with fellow superstar rookie Kiefer Ravena, Slaughter will get more attention not only from his own coach, but from the coaches of the other teams out to stop the Ateneo march to the championship.
“It’s not always that you have a seven-footer in your team and we plan to take full advantage of that,” said Blue Eagles mentor Norman Black.
Losing the MVP trophy to National U freshman Bobby Ray Parks only trained the floodlights on Slaughter even more. Not only are people looking at how he will respond to the defeat, but they will also expect much from the top player, statistically, left in the field.
Slaughter finished second behind Parks for the MVP plum after averaging 13.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.4 apg and 1.9 bpg in the elimination rounds.
While the spitfire Ravena is a more complete offensive package, Ateneo has clearly let its offense center on its big man, dumping the ball down low hoping that his size produces easy points or frees his teammates for open looks.
In fact, when Ateneo’s bid for a perfect 14-0 record was destroyed by Adamson in the last elimination playdate, the Falcons, well, slaughtered the Eagles by clamping down hard on the big guy.
It is a gameplan that teams are likely to Xerox starting with University of Santo Tomas, the surprise semifinalist that takes a first crack at knocking out Ateneo.
Ganging on Greg might just be the only way to take the Eagles out of contention.
2. RR GARCIA
Statistically, RR Garcia was the best player for the FEU Tamaraws in the elimination round of Season 74.
But if the MVP race were to be used as the yardstick, that honor would probably go to Aldrech Ramos, the 6-foot-6 center with a soft touch from mid-range. So when the going gets tough and Bert Flores burns a timeout to map out a crucial play, guess on who’s hands he’s going to put the ball into?
That would be RR Garcia.
When Garcia won the MVP last year, he told the Inquirer the award hardly mattered: “If we won’t win the championship, it’s useless.”
Imagine how motivated he will be for the crown this season now that it’s the only piece of hardware left that he can shoot for. No MVP and more likely, no slot in the Mythical Five. Expect the UAAP crown to become Garcia’s sole obsession.
Garcia’s numbers in the elimination round were still impressive. He averaged 16.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 2.7 apg through 14 matches. He could have finished higher in the MVP race except that FEU uncharacteristically blew games the Tamaraws should have won and cost the former PH Youth star bonus points.
Still, Garcia looks at those defeats through the eyes of an optimist.
“Those losses,” he said, “will help because we learned a lot from them.”
And if the Tamaraws learned enough, he could wind up taking home the biggest hardware of them all.
3. JERIC FORTUNA
The Tigers of the University of Santo Tomas were never supposed to reach this part of the tournament.
Ranked in the bottom half of the field in the preseason—as low as seventh, in fact—it didn’t seem like UST would be able to include Season 74 of the UAAP as one of the highlights in a year where the España-based school, is celebrating its 400th year.
“We finished seventh last season and we were ranked low in the preseason so we have no way to go but up,” said UST coach Pido Jarencio.
And the way up was through the playmaking of Fortuna.
While UST has had several guys step up in several stretches of the elimination round—notably, the likes of Karim Abdul, Jeric Teng, Kevin Ferrer and Chris Camus—the one consistent key throughout the 14-game stretch was Fortuna.
Where his game went, the Tigers followed.
“He’s already made,” Jarencio said of the former La Salle-Zobel playmaker. “He is the best guard in the UAAP right now.”
Fortuna finished the elimination phase of the UAAP with averages of 13.6 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.2 apg and 1.3 spg. But what he really excels at is hitting clutch shots when the team really needs it. In a defining game against FEU late in the elimination round, Fortuna made the big shots that helped UST seal its Final Four stint.
And it’s this kind of steel-nerved performance that could just help the Tigers in its giant-killing bid in the Final Four.
4. ALEX NUYLES
You can’t blame Alex Nuyles for being under the radar for so long. An unassuming 6-foot-2 wingman from Dominican School of Camalig in Albay, Nuyles was destined to be a star even before the UAAP season started.
It’s just that very few took notice until he began assembling solid performances. Big-scoring nights. Game-winners. About the only person who knew Nuyles was going to hit big-time this season was coach Leo Austria.
“I’m very confident that he will deliver for us,” Austria said
Fast-forward Austria’s interview at the end of the elimination round. After Nuyles averaged 15.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 3.3 apg for the Falcons, Austria declared that the Final Four would be Nuyles’ chance to prove his star power.
“I know he will shine,” Austria said. “And this is the best time for him to shine.”
Nuyles will be the focal point of Adamson after the four-year veteran showed he has learned enough from his initial mistakes.
“In the first few games, he was very immature. Now, he’s starting to learn from the experience,” said Austria.
Aside from his offensive prowess and his quiet leadership, Nuyles’ edge is the ability to play in the backcourt, allowing Adamson to pounce on mismatches on both ends of the floor.
Adamson first tackles FEU in the FInal Four. If things go according to form, the Falcons could face the Eagles in the Finals. Don’t think for once that Nuyles isn’t eager to feast on either Kiefer Ravena or RR Garcia.
Come to think of it, Austria could be right. This could very well be Alex Nuyles’ time to shine.
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