Coach Bo Perasol spoke glowingly about Bright Akhuetie, how his presence would lift University of the Philippines not just on the basketball court, but inside the locker room, too.
“He changes a lot in our team,” said Perasol. “He makes us more competitive and more importantly, his presence gives us confidence.”
That was before Akhuetie even stepped on the court for his first UAAP game with the Maroons. Correction: That was before Akhuetie was even eligible to step on the court for his first UAAP game with the Maroons. But if the former Perpetual star who dominated the NCAA can pump up the Maroons even while serving his residency, imagine what he brings to UP now that he can actually suit up.
The souped-up Maroons test their newfound strength when they take on the University of the East Warriors at 2 p.m. Saturday at the start of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament at Mall of Asia Arena.
Akhuetie may have lit the wick of optimism for the Maroons, but he will have to prove his stuff where it counts. Luckily, the Maroons drew a relatively easy opponent as they unveil their new star big man as the Warriors will be coming in with a new coach in former Ateneo high champion mentor Joe Silva.
Also making his debut for his new school is Aldin Ayo, who will parade a rookie-laden University of Santo Tomas Tigers in a bid to bring respectability back to a school that used to be one of the traditional heavyweights of the league.
UST battles host National U in a 4 p.m. match.
Inheriting a team that won just one game last season, Ayo’s ability to make his team overachieve—a talent that was largely overlooked when he handled a talent-rich La Salle squad for two seasons—makes the Tigers worth a second look this season.
But his entry to the UST community was not seamless. Hit by criticisms after he became the first non-alumni to handle the Tigers, Ayo bears a lot of pressure to prove his worth and establish a connection with the school’s loyal throng.
Ayo made a big leap toward forging a relationship with the UST faithful, turning to a beloved school icon for advice after an exhibition game against former Tigers.
“I spoke to coach Aric (del Rosario) for a long time and he told me a lot about his experience with UST,” Ayo was quoted by UST school organ The Varsitarian as saying in Filipino. “Of course, I asked advice from him about what he thinks can help me [this season].”
Del Rosario led UST to a “four-peat” from 1993 to 1996 and is a favorite father figure in the Thomasian community. Del Rosario and Ayo crossed paths during the exhibition match, where the fabled former UST mentor coached the alumni squad.
While UP’s debutante should have an easier time against the Alvin Pasaol-led Warriors, UST and Ayo may find the going a bit tough as they tangle with National U, which is out to rebound after a disappointing season where the Bulldogs failed to make the Final 4.
The host school left no stone unturned to ensure a glitzy opening ceremony, with Steph Curry expected to arrive to lend star power to the event at Mall of Asia Arena.
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