Spotlight on young stars as UAAP returns to action with Ateneo-UP faceoff
In a way, the return of varsity basketball action is also a chance to assess the future of the country’s hoops program.
Part of the excitement in Saturday’s opening of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) season is a chance to get a glimpse of the top youngsters in the game today, a lot of who will see action in the highlight match of a heavy four-game schedule at Mall of Asia Arena.
Defending champion Ateneo battles fellow title favorite University of the Philippines (UP) at 4 p.m. with both squads armed to the teeth with several players who are in the pipeline of the Gilas Pilipinas program.
The Blue Eagles are hoping that they have enough holdovers from their previous three-title romp to go after a fourth straight crown. And their hopes begin and end with naturalized Filipino Ange Kouame, who is at the center of the national team’s future plans.
Ateneo’s title bid will be ran by former national coach Tab Baldwin, whose presence on the bench automatically bumps up any program to the level of favorite.
Baldwin, however, is tempering everyone’s optimism.
“There’s a lot of unknowns as we start the season. I think it’s a whole new experience for the team and the fans,” said Baldwin. “As we go through the first round, everybody will begin to settle to their own rhythm and we’ll see probably better basketball. Hopefully it will stay competitive all throughout the competition.”
Aside from Kouame, Ateneo will rely on Gilas cadet SJ Belangel and former Batang Gilas star Dave Ildefonso a transferee from National U who suited up for Ateneo in high school. Raffy Verano, Tyler Tio and Gian Mamuyac are other holdovers who will help guide newcomers like Chris Koon and Forthsky Padrigao.
UP will also enter the “Battle of Katipunan” stacked.
New coach Goldwyn Monteverde, who ran a successful high school program with National U’s Nazareth School, will be bringing with him his three stars including Gilas cadet Carl Tamayo. Also joining him in Diliman are Gerry Abadiano and Terrence Fortea.
For veteran leadership, Monteverde will turn to holdover Ricci Rivero and former University of Santo Tomas (UST) captain CJ Cansino, who was fished out of the rubble of the Tigers’ collapsed program. UP also welcomed Senegalese Malick Diouf, a 6-foot-11 transferee from Centro Escolar University.
The UAAP will still not allow fans to enter its playing venues but its TV and mobile partnerships will help put the games and the athletes within fans’ fingertips.
Cignal, the official broadcaster, has promised a variety of content that will sate students’ craving for news and features while Smart Communications will stream the games live exclusively on its GigaPlay app for free—with no data charges—for a limited period.
Smart’s GigaPlay app, which already hosts NBA, PBA, Philippine Volleyball League and Fiba (International Basketball Federation) games, will also have features that will try to compensate for fans’ inability to troop to venues.
The UAAP will open the gates to spectators in the second round at the earliest.
A pretaped opening ceremonies at 9 a.m. officially marks the return of the league from a pandemic-forced hiatus, after which Far Eastern University (FEU) battles UST at 10. The Tamaraws will have their own young superstar to unveil as Gilas cadet and national team 3×3 star RJ Abarrientos debuts for FEU.
At 1 p.m., Adamson and new coach Nash Racela battle National U while remodeled Gilas stretch big Justine Baltazar spearheads La Salle when it faces University of the East at 7 p.m.