Two things can be remembered for what the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has become in the 21st century—the re-emergence of the San Beda Red Lions as a dominant force and a collection of players who became major stars in the PBA.
While the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) had its share of memorable players that made it the country's glamour league, it was the grit and excitement of the NCAA that launched the legends of Calvin Abueva and Jayson Castro, made Sam Ekwe change the landscape of collegiate basketball, and served as stepping stone for Scottie Thompson and Jio Jalalon to become future stars.
Leo Najorda (San Sebastian Stags)
Najorda was part of San Sebastian’s back-to-back title runs in 2001 and 2002, alongside top players Christian Coronel and Jam Alfad. He won the Most Improved Player and Finals Most Valuable Player award in the other half of that reign when the Stags swept the St. Benilde Blazers in Finals. The lefty forward later won the season MVP plum in 2003 before turning pro two years later.
Sunday Salvacion (St. Benilde Blazers)
There's no question that Salvacion is regarded as the greatest player to ever wear a CSB jersey. He was a member of the Blazers' only NCAA title in 2000, and won season MVP honors in his final season in 2002, when they fell short against the Stags in the Finals. His exploits at the other side of Taft Avenue resulted in a steady PBA career, most notably with Ginebra.
Boyet Bautista (Letran Knights)
While Ronjay Buenafe was relied for scoring, it was Bautista who provided stability for the Knights in their NCAA championship victories in 2003 and 2005 under coach Louie Alas, making key baskets when needed. He was Finals MVP in Letran's 2005 finals win over Philippine Christian University, but a long-term PBA stint eluded him after his great career in Muralla, Intramuros ended.
Gabby Espinas (PCU Dolphins)
He may now be known as a curly haired back-up forward for the newly crowned Commissioner's Cup champion San Miguel Beermen, but Espinas was a versatile bald-headed star of the PCU Dolphins' only NCAA championship in 2004. He was the NCAA's first-ever Rookie of the Year-MVP winner when the Dolphins swept the Perpetual Help Altas in the Finals.
Jayson Castro (PCU Dolphins)
The Jayson Castro planted the seeds that made him not only the best PG in PBA but also in the Asian region. In the NCAA, he teamed up with Espinas, Rob Sanz, and Beau Belga to lead PCU to the 2004 title. Castro is remembered for his game-winning three against Perpetual Help in the opener of the 2004 Finals and his one-man show that nearly completed PCU's 28-point comeback in the deciding third game of the 2006 Finals series against San Beda.
Sam Ekwe (San Beda Red Lions)
The 6-foot-8 Nigerian was the symbol of collegiate basketball’s foreign invasion and the rebirth of the San Beda dynasty that continues to lord over the tourney to date. Ekwe won two MVP awards, the first coming in 2006, when he also won Rookie of the Year in the season that ended the Red Lions' 28-year title drought. His arrival prompted rival NCAA and even UAAP teams to tap foreigners to beef up their rosters.
Yousif Aljamal (San Beda Red Lions)
Aljamal saved his best for last in 2007, when the Red Lions won their second straight title with the sweep of the Letran Knights in the finals. He was named Finals MVP after a season in which he teamed up with Ekwe, Ogie Menor, and Pong Escobal to extend San Beda's reign. It turned out to be the best moment of his career after a forgetful PBA stint.
Ogie Menor (San Beda Red Lions)
Known for sporting a mohawk, the 6-foot-2 forward was another component of the Red Lions' three-peat-winning run from 2006 to 2008, stepping up in games that mattered. The Finals of those seasons were a showcase of his abilities. Menor would go on to have an on-and-off career in the pro ranks.
RJ Jazul (Letran Knights)
Jazul was one of the NCAA's premier scorers during the latter portion of his stay with Letran, oftentimes a threat from rainbow territory. His best seasons came in 2008 and 2009—the final two seasons of his varsity career—as he and the Knights fell short in toppling the San Beda dynasty. Jazul is now a starting guard for Phoenix in the PBA.
Calvin Abueva (San Sebastian Stags)
There's no question that 'The Beast' was the greatest NCAA player of this century. Abueva's boundless energy and brash attitude left a mark among fans who either loved or hated his play. He led the Stags to their last title in 2009, claimed MVP honors in 2011 and was the first NCAA player to lead the league in points, rebounds, and assists in 2012.
Sudan Daniel (San Beda Red Lions)
The American center inherited Ekwe's role in stride, emerging as a dominating center that led to two more titles for San Beda in 2010 and 2011. His best season came in 2010 when the slam-dunking Californian dubbed "Superman" joined forces with Borgie Hermida, Jake Pascual, and Garvo Lanete in powering the Red Lions to a 16-0 season. Daniel would remain in the Philippines, where he is one of the executives of the popular basketball store, Titan.
Kevin Alas (Letran Knights)
The son of coach Louie Alas carved his own name in Intramuros with great performances during his four-year NCAA career. His most memorable came in the 2012 Final Four against San Sebastian when he fired 43 points in a win that became a stepping stone in the Knights' finals appearance that same year. Letran eventually lost to San Beda in the title series, denying Alas a championship before turning pro.
Raymond Almazan (Letran Knights)
Almazan debuted in 2010 as a beanpole that looked like a project. But over time, the current Rain or Shine star emerged as one of the NCAA's best defensive players, eventually becoming the 2013 season MVP. The NCAA title, however, eluded the 6-foot-7 center after the Knights lost to the Red Lions in the 2012 and 2013 Finals.
Baser Amer (San Beda Red Lions)
Amer won four championships during his five-year stint in Mendiola, all of which came during the Red Lions' five-peat run that ended in 2014. The Davao native thrived during his role as chief playmaker during Boyet Fernandez's first coaching tenure in 2013 and 2014, usually making the big plays during clutch situations.
Scottie Thompson (Perpetual Help Altas)
Long-time NCAA fans are no longer surprised with the way Thompson has played in his first two seasons in the PBA for Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. He played in three Final Fours, winning the league's MVP award in 2014, behind a series of games where he usually flirted with a double- or triple-double. His current success in pros may eventually make him as Perpetual Help's greatest export.
Jio Jalalon (Arellano University Chiefs)
Jalalon rose from an unknown recruit from Informatics into the best player Arellano produced in its early NCAA history. He earned the nickname 'The Bus Driver' for his array of whirlwind moves that dazzled the Chiefs community, resulting in two finals appearances in 2014 and 2016. The current Star rookie, however, left Legarda without a collegiate championship to boast.
Allwell Oraeme (Mapua Cardinals)
Mapua fans will severely miss Oraeme's presence after winning back-to-back MVP awards and Final Four appearances. The Nigerian was perhaps the best among the recent wave of imports who invaded the league with his constant 20-20 performances. Oraeme left before the start of the season, much to the dismay of Cardinals coach Atoy Co.
Honorable mentions: Christian Coronel, Jam Alfad, Ronjay Enrile, Pong Escobal, Kelvin dela Pena, John Wilson
NCAA Season 93 opens today at the Mall of Asia Arena. Host San Sebastian will go up with the defending champs San Beda at 4 P.M.