UAAP Season 78 Preview: ‘Hunted’ NU Bulldogs look to extend reign
Head coach: Eric Altamirano
Last season: 9-5 (Champion)
Key losses: Troy Rosario, Glen Khobuntin, Dennice Villamor
Key Returnees: Gelo Alolino, Jeff Javillonar, Jay-jay Alejandro
National University finds itself in a situation where not a single version of its past teams in the last 60 years had been in before.
Losers no more, the Bulldogs will enter the 78th UAAP Season, which opens on Saturday, as the defending champions.
And for NU head coach Eric Altamirano, the Bulldogs’ biggest challenge this season is dealing with the expectations that come with being a champion.
“I think the biggest challenge for this team is that this is the first time that we’re in this position that we’re the defending champions,” Altamirano told INQUIRER.net recently after practice.
“So we’ve always been the hunters and not the hunted. But this time we’re the hunted,” Altamirano said. “It’s something new to us. We really have to learn how to manage it and how to handle it.”
Last year, NU had one of the most remarkable championship runs in the history of the UAAP after being the only fourth seed since the Final Four was introduced to win it all.
Sky high confidence
And from being a long-time doormat to a defending champion, a team’s mentality changes. Suddenly, their confidence is sky high, and Altamirano said it’s his job to make sure that his players’ feet remain planted on the ground and to remind them to still treat every game with hunger the way they did when they still haven’t won anything.
“They may not admit it but mentally I just want to remind them we still have to be hungry and approach practices the way we approached them last year. Being a champion doesn’t mean that you can be complacent and not respect your opponents.”
“Pressure is always there whether you’re a champion or not. We just want to think about the process getting better each day, winning everyday and we just want the results to take care of itself.”
NU lost three key players from its title run in Troy Rosario, Glen Khobuntin and Dennice Villamor due to graduation and Altamirano admits that those are big shoes to fill for his mainstays.
Up to the task being the new leader is the graduating star guard Gelo Alolino, who is the new team skipper.
“This is his (Alolino) last year. We’re looking up to him as our leader. He’s stepping up big time this season. He knows what’s at stake, the responsibility that he has in his team and it’s going to be challenging for him because we have a lot of new players,” Altamirano said.
The responsibility is nothing new for Alolino, who was the Bulldogs’ starting point guard and one of the go-to players in crucial situations.
“Last year, my leadership has been there. My leadership on the floor as a point guard I try to be coach’s extension on and off the court,” Alolino said. “But this year I have a bigger responsibility on the team as the captain. And as a veteran, I need to be the example not only in words but in my actions.”
“We have that image that we’re the defending champion. But coach Eric has been reminding us that we don’t have that sense of entitlement this year because this is a new season and eight teams have the opportunity to win the championship.”
Alolino is determined to lead the Bulldogs to another championship.
“This year my motivation really is to lead this team. If last year I had a great year, this year I want to have an even better year,” said Alolino, who also said that being invited to tryout for the Gilas cadets this year team made him a better player.
“That’s our goal (winning the championship). But we’re not looking too far ahead. We just want to win everyday, be better every day because those are the things that we can control.”
NU opens its campaign against De La Salle University on Sunday at Mall of Asia Arena.