The Ateneo Blue Eagles are the favorites this year as they seek to repeat as champions, while the De La Salle Green Archers and the FEU Tamaraws are seen as contenders based on past performances. Meanwhile, the UP Fighting Maroons is the chic pick to enter the Final Four after a long absence, with former NCAA MVP Bright Akhuetie finally suiting up.
Lost in all of this are this season's hosts, the NU Bulldogs. No one is really taking head coach Jamike Jarin's boys that seriously because they missed the playoffs recently, but everyone seems to forget that the team from Sampaloc was the titleholder just three years ago.
The Bulldogs are deceptively good and should be considered as a powerhouse this year, especially with the acquisition of former Wake Forest player Troy Rike. Recall that the Gilas cadet made headlines for being one of the cooler heads in the infamous "basketbrawl" between Gilas and Australia.
After Rike secured the necessary eligibility documents, Jarin confirmed to SPIN.ph that the 22-year-old center "will play this Saturday" against the UST Growling Tigers during the Season 81 opener at the Mall of Asia Arena. He will join Shaun and Dave Ildefonso, NU legend and current assistant coach Danny's sons, as the Bulldogs' latest batch of prized recruits.
A smooth face-up big man with a decent stroke and an active motor, Rike is a fine addition for NU. The 6'7" stretch forward will play alongside Issa Gaye and Matt Aquino to give the Bulldogs a fearsome three-man frontcourt rotation that will wreak havoc inside the paint and cause problems for opposing teams.
Expect the Bulldogs to go for the crown this season, as Rike is only eligible to play for one year. NU is primed for a deep run and will shock the league if underestimated, with the graduate student-athlete being a big reason why.