UAAP Season 85 preview: UP Maroons face tall order against souped-up competition
MANILA, Philippines — University of the Philippines earned its opponents’ respect after ending a 36-year championship drought. But the two squads it took down last season to make history, Ateneo and La Salle, are out to redeem themselves as the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament tips off on Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena.
The Fighting Maroons, who used to be pushovers in the past decades before becoming contenders in the league for the last three seasons, are now being hunted by seven other teams after JD Cagulangan capped their epic Season 84 with a history-making triple to dethrone the Blue Eagles in Finals Game 3 last May.
In their first title-retention bid in three decades, UP is facing a tall order as Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin honed his team’s potential abroad while La Salle emerged as contender after a successful run in local pre-season tournaments.
FilOil EcoOil champion National University, host school Adamson, and consistent Final Four contender Far Eastern University are said to be dark horse challengers.
Reaching the Final Four could still be a long shot for the last season’s cellar-dwellers University of the East and University of Santo Tomas. But with the vast improvement of both squads, the top teams shouldn’t be complacent as they could pull off surprises.
INQUIRER Sports takes a look at the eight teams before the men’s basketball tournament kicks off Season 85, which will finally have a full athletic calendar for the first time this pandemic era.
UP Fighting Maroons
Head coach: Goldwin Monteverde
Key losses: Ricci Rivero, Noah Webb, and CJ Cansino (injury)
Key additions: Henry Galinato
Season 84 record: 12-2 (Champion)
After becoming the new kings of UAAP basketball five months ago, the Fighting Maroons and head coach Goldwin Monteverde know they need to take their game to the next level in their bid to defend their throne.
UP parted ways with seniors Ricci Rivero and Noah Webb while CJ Cansino will miss the season due to a knee injury he sustained last season but still helped his squad in the Finals. But they remain heavy favorites with a talent-rich roster, led by Season 84’s top rookie Carl Tamayo, Game 3 hero Cagulangan, mythical five-member Zavier Lucero, Finals MVP Malick Diouf, and James Spencer.
“I think as a team, we should level up. Definitely, we will miss the leadership of Noah and Ricci, while CJ can’t play. It would have been better if he’s here at least he can provide the leadership. But I guess my players will have a crash course in becoming more mature,” Monteverde said in Filipino. “James Spencer will be a good leader for us, and the likes of Brix Ramos. The others will have to take this crash course for them to play like a veteran.”
Despite playing two seasons in one year, Monteverde was pleased with their preparation after playing in the FilOil EcoOil preseason tournament and UCBL and flying to South Korea for their training camp. Tamayo also gained a fruitful experience from representing Gilas Pilipinas in the third and fourth windows of the Fiba World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers and Asia Cup.
The UP coach, who is on his second season, believes their previous title run would no longer mean a thing now as all the other squads have improved. He just wants to see the same determination and mentality to win it all again this Season 85.
“As you can see, all the teams have improved a lot during the preseason. So I guess, whether it’s La Salle (in the opener) or whoever we face, we’ll always approach it the same and we’ll try to prepare as best as we can,” Monteverde said.
Ateneo Blue Eagles
Head coach: Tab Baldwin
Key losses: SJ Belangel, Gian Mamuyac, Tyler Tio, Raffy Verano
Key additions: Kai Ballungay, Paul Garcia
Season 84 record: 13-1 (Runner-up)
New key players have to rise to the occasion for Ateneo as it lost some of the vital pieces of its past ‘three-peat’ run with SJ Belangel turning pro in the Korean Basketball League and Gian Mamuyac, Tyler Tio, and Raffy Verano exhausting their playing years.
But with Tab Baldwin still calling the shots, the Blue Eagles are still the among the favortes to win the Season 85 crown after the Kiwi-American coach prepared his version of ‘redeem team’, led by reigning MVP Ange Kouame and fellow Gilas members Dave Ildefonso and Geo Chiu, in an invitational league in Japan and a training camp in Israel.
Ateneo is also banking on holdovers BJ Andrade, and Forthsky Padrigao as well as newcomers Kai Ballungay and Paul Garcia, who were instrumental in their title run in the World University Basketball Series in Japan. Besides preparing overseas, the runner-up also played friendlies against the Bay Area Dragons and Korea’s LG Sakers at home.
Although missing the local preseason tournaments gives them a disadvantage, Baldwin is banking on all the learnings his players earned from overseas in their bid to reclaim the crown after a heartbreaking Game 3 loss to UP.
“I’m sure that we took steps forward. But like I said before, missing out on the FilOil and the other competitions that involve the UAAP teams is not something that’s going to help us. So we just have to see the effect of all of that when we start playing against these guys over there in a few games,” said the Blue Eagles coach, who won three titles in his first five seasons.
De La Salle Green Archers
Head coach: Derick Pumaren
Key losses: Justine Baltazar, Kurt Lojera
Key additions: Kevin Quiambao
Season 84 record: 9-5 (3rd Place)
La Salle may have lost its main man Justine Baltazar, who is ready to make waves in Japan B.League which also opens this weekend, but the remaining Green Archers are out to lead their school all the way to the top after falling short of the finals last season.
Even coming off a heartbreaking Final Four exit last season, Evan Nelle said the pain fueled them, believing his team has turned not only into a title contender, but also a No.1 team this Season 85.
What made Nelle say they are No.1? Their line-up bannered by Michael Phillips, Schonny Winston, Mark Nonoy, and rookie Kevin Quiambao and their successful pre-season, ruling the PBA D-League Aspirants’ Cup, finishing third in FilOil, and training in Japan.
Green Archer coach Derick Pumaren, who brought La Salle back in the Final Four last season after five years, is also confident that they could be a better team this tournament after having longer offseason preparation.
“I think we took advantage of the short break before playing in Season 85. I think we’re more prepared this time, not like the bubble tournament where we only had less than a month to get ready. We took advantage of that, we joined preseason leagues and we wrapped up our preseason with a trip to Japan,” he said.
And for Nelle, Phillips, and even newcomer Quiambao, who wasn’t even part of the team’s heartbreaking loss to UP, they learned their lesson and vowed not to experience the same heartbreak again.
Head coach: Olsen Racela
Key losses: RJ Abarrientos, Brandrey Bienes
Key additions:,Patrick Tchuente (returnee)
Season 84 record: 7-7 (4th Place)
FEU star RJ Abarrientos ended up as a one-and-done after he decided to take his act to Korea.
Although the prolific guard’s departure was a big blow to the program’s consistent Final Four contention, Olsen Racela encourages his holdovers to step up for their school.
L-Jay Gonzales is embracing bigger responsibility as the leader of the Tamaraws, who still have holdovers Xyrus Torres, Royce Alforque, Bryan Sajonia, James Tempra, and Ximone Sandagon as well as returning Patrick Tchuente.
Racela believes his team still has the key pieces to compete at a high level. But he is not pressuring his team in keeping the longest active Final Four streak in the league — eight straight appearances — alive. All he wants from the Tamaraws are to give their all each game.
“We know that there’s a rich tradition in the FEU community. But, really, no expectation. What we can expect from these guys is to give their 100% every time,” said Racela, whose team finished runner-up in the FilOil preseason tournament.
“If that results to winning and making the Final 4 and winning a championship, then so be it.“
Head coach: Nash Racela
Key losses: Keith Zaldivar
Key additions:AP Manlapaz (returnee)
Season 84 record: 6-8 (5th Place)
In Adamson’s season hosting where UP, Ateneo, and La Salle are considered top contenders, Jerom Lastimosa remains determined to lift the Falcons against all odds and all the way into the Final Four.
“We will always try our best and best and best to reach Final Four, and of course, make it to the Finals. Even it’s hard to win against those teams, we will still find ways to beat them,” said Lastimosa in Filipino.
“As a veteran, I will always guide all of my teammates. The bonding is there since the bubble (tournament). This coming season, we will make up for our shortcomings,” he added.
Adamson coach Nash Racela is fielding the same core, led by Lastimosa and also bannered by Lenda Douanga, Matty Erolon, Didat Hanapi, Joshua Yerro, Joem Sabandal, and Cedrick Manzano.
The second year coach is hoping that the Falcons have already learned from their slow start last season, which cost them their Final Four contention.
“That’s something that we’ve learned. We can’t start sluggish. If we could always step on the pedal from the start to finish, better,” Racela said. “I just hope that because of those experiences last season, we can come out a better team now.”
Adamson spent its preseason in the FilOil EcoOil Cup and ruled the Kadayawan Cup in Davao. The team also went to Surigao.
Head coach: Jeff Napa
Key losses: Shaun Ildefonso, Janjan Felicilda, Reyland Torres
Key additions: Omar John, Kean Baclaan
Season 84 record: 6-8 (6th Place)
NU sent a strong message during the preseason after ruling preseason tournaments, Filoil EcoOil Cup and UCBL.
But for head coach Jeff Napa, the Bulldogs’ pre-season success doesn’t mean they will be an instant contender this UAAP season.
He’s just glad about the improvement of his wards John Lloyd Clemente, Steve Nash Enriquez, Jake Figueroa, Michael Malonzo, RJ Minerva, Kean Baclaan, and Omar John, making them dark horse contenders this season.
“(Our preseason success) is not a big deal. Because Ateneo didn’t play. It’s a matter of gaining experience for the players and even us coaches. At least our players are well-prepared coming to the real battle,” Napa said.
NU is seeking to end a seven-year Final Four drought this Season 85. Even they had a lot of roster changes from losing several players, the preseason was a testament that the Bulldogs can crash into the semifinals.
UST Growling Tigers
Head coach: Bal David
Key losses: Joshua Fontanilla, Sherwin Concepcion, Bryan Santos
Key additions: Kenji Duremdes, Richi Calimag, Kylle Magdangal, Adama Faye
Season 84 record: 3-11 (7th Place)
Bal David gets to gauge how far his rebuilding UST squad can go after key guys Sherwin Concepcion and Bryan Santos were ruled ineligible due to age just weeks before the tournament.
David, who was named the new Growling Tigers coach to replace Jinino Manansala last July, had to make some last-minute adjustments witj the leadership responsibility is now in the hands of Nic Cabanero.
Besides Cabanero, UST is also parading Paul Manalang, Royce Mantua, Migs Pangilinan, and Senegalese big man Adama Faye as well as second-generation players Kenji Duremdes, Echo Laure, and Richi Calimag in David’s first UAAP season as head coach.
Tigers assistant coach Rodney Santos said he and David tried to make the most of the short time they had since taking the coaching reins just last July. With a rebuilding roster, UST is not leaving any promises but it will try its best to rise from its previous 3-11 finish.
“Coach Bal was appointed just last July, so we tried to squeeze everything in the span of two months. As much as possible, we tried to squeeze in everything, from offense and defense,” Santos said during the press conference.
“Our approach is we try everything. No promises, but we’ll try our best to have a better season for UST.”
UE Red Warriors
Head coach: Jack Santiago
Key losses: Clint Escamis, Orin Catacutan
Key additions:CJ Payawal, Luis Salgado, Gani Stevens
Season 84 record: 0-14 (8th Place)
The UE Red Warriors are still far from becoming contenders. But this season, they know they have what it takes to finally enter the win column after their previous 0-14 finish.
Despite the departure of Orin Catacutan and Clint Escamis, who came back to Mapua, UE showed a lot of improvement in the preseason with Harvey Pagsanjan and brothers Nikko and Kyle Paranada carrying the cudgels for their squad.
The Red Warriors are also banking on rookie CJ Payawal and fellow newcomers Luis Salgado and Gani Stevens with head coach Jack Santiago, who missed most of their games in Season 84, out to complete his unfinished business.
UE assistant coach Don Allado admitted they are still instilling their system and building the character of this young team.
“Right now, we’ve been working on trying to put in the system, both on offense and defense. It’s more on character building, how to approach certain situations in the games, and how to deal with those things,” Allado said.
Despite being a work in progress, the Red Warriors proved that they can win, this time, after winning four of their eight matches in the group stage of the FilOil tournament.