With UAAP looming, favorites play it coy
Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin feels his team’s absence from the local preseason scene will take some of the advantages from the Blue Eagles’ string of overseas buildup.
On the other hand, Goldwyn Monteverde believes the University of the Philippines (UP) is far from a sure bet despite entering the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament as the defending champion.
If there’s any sign that the country’s premier varsity league is nearing opening night, it’s the tournament favorites downplaying their chances.
“Obviously, the opportunity to travel overseas to Japan, to play in the World University Games, and to go to Israel and get both a basketball and cultural experience for our players was really good,” Baldwin said on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.
As part of their buildup, the Blue Eagles played in Japan and Israel and had several friendly matches here. Baldwin, however, expressed wariness over Ateneo’s absence from a preseason tournament participated in by other UAAP teams.
“[M]issing out on competing against our UAAP opponents, I think, is something that may come back to bite us a little bit,” he added.
Not a sure thing
The Blue Eagles lost to the Maroons in last season’s finals early this year, but Monteverde warns against automatically tagging UP as the team to beat.
“[W]inning a championship last season doesn’t mean that this season, we are a sure thing,” the UP coach said.
“I think every team, every coach would really prepare and face the challenges for this Season 85. When we play, we just make sure that we’ll be ready and prepared, and just do our best in everything,” he added.
UP won its first crown since 1986 on a clutch triple from Joel Cagulangan, who will return to lead a crack crew that also features Gilas standout Carl Tamayo, mythical five member Zavier Lucero, Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Malick Diouf and James Spencer.
With both favorites pointing to each other as the season’s top target, La Salle’s Evan Nelle took it upon himself to decide the matter.
And Nelle didn’t play it coy.
“I really think we are the favorites,” said the former San Beda standout. “Because the way we bonded during our preseason games, we really showed what we can do as a team. The bonding was really different from the bubble season. So yeah. We’re No. 1,” said Nelle.
The Green Archers are looking to bounce back from a heartbreak loss to the Maroons in the semifinals last season.
And La Salle would definitely want to upstage fierce rival Ateneo, which lost key cogs from last season, including Gian Mamuyac, Raffy Verano and Tyler Tio who used up their eligibility, and SJ Belangel, who turned pro to play in South Korea.
Reigning MVP Ange Kouame is also not 100 percent after suffering a partial ACL tear last June, although he has already seen action in tuneup games.
Baldwin said his wards, led by holdovers Dave Ildefonso, BJ Andrade and Forthsky Padrigao as well as newcomers Kai Ballungay and Paul Garcia, will draw a lot from their experience overseas.
“Obviously you improve every time you train or play games, and the European teams give you a certain type of competition which sharpens your understanding of the game,” he said.
The new season begins on Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena, while Ateneo starts its redemption season on Sunday against Final Four rival Far Eastern University on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.