Experts just declared the De La Salle University Green Archers as the team to beat in UAAP Season 79 men's basketball tournament. But that doesn't mean the other contending teams will just surrender to their might without a fight.
The beauty of this hotly contested and rabidly followed league is, it has always been an exciting and unpredictable affair. So don't hand the crown to the battle-tested Archers from Taft just yet. These teams, after all, have what it takes to prove the pundits' pre-season forecasts wrong.
PROTECTING THEIR REIGN
Far Eastern University Tamaraws
Scouting report: The defending champs still have the fiery and wily Nash Racela controlling the action from the sidelines. He'll most likely rally his troops to stay focused throughout their campaign, inspiring them with the classic Rudy Tomjanovich nugget along the way: Never underestimate the heart of the champion.
His main cast, although not nearly as seasoned as the Archers' crew, is still capable of pulling off a surprising run, thanks to the fiery backcourt tandem of Monbert Arong and Ron Dennison. Insiders say that if Arong dishes out a breakout performance this year, he'll be a huge boost to the Tamaraws' bid to return to the Finals versus La Salle and win its second consecutive crown.
Manning the post will be FEU's monolithic center Prince Orizu, who, at 6'8", has a fighting chance of defending and scoring over DLSU's highly touted behemoth Ben Mbala. The FEU faithful just better hope Orizu has enough in his tank to stand his ground against the Archers' intimidating superstar. Orizu and reliable forward-center Raymar Jose will try to complement guards' unwavering swag.
X-factor: The rivalry between the Green Archers and the Tamaraws goes way back. So it wasn't surprising to find out that the recent tune-up game between the two was an excessively physical encounter. The match was so heated in fact that DLSU coach Aldin Ayo even accused Racela of ordering his boys to intentionally hurt Mbala and Jeron Teng. The bad blood already brewing between the two camps automatically makes their match in the first round as the year's most anticipated game. The gritty Tamaraws have always been comfortable with the underdog tag. If they come out as rabid as ever from the get-go, DLSU better watch out.
WHO IS JV GALLEGO?
National University Bulldogs
Scouting report: The 2014 UAAP champs have their own manchild in Alfred Aroga, whom we think matches up well with Mbala on both ends of the floor. Holdovers JJay Alejandro, Rev Diputado, Mohammad Salim and Aroga will be counted on to provide steady production. Their familiarity with coach Eric Altamirano's system will also be key. Among the vets, Alejandro will likely step up and become the team's main man.
One notable addition to the Bulldogs' squad is potential super-rookie JV Gallego out of Chang Kai Shek College, who was sent by NU to the US a year ago to undergo extensive training. Undeniably, the NU men's basketball team is a formidable group. If they can follow their head coach's instructions to a tee, they might give the mighty Green Archers—and the Tamaraws, too—massive mind-splitting headaches.
X-factor: Coach Altamirano is a master hoops strategist. We won't be surprised if he pushes the right buttons on his big boys Aroga (6'7"), and Salim (6'4") and NU's scrappy guards. Together, they're adept at coming up with a defensive scheme that'll negate the offense of this league's top dogs.
THE RISE OF KANGKAROT BALL
University of the East Red Warriors
Scouting report: Coach Derek Pumaren's holdovers—Bonbon Batiller, Renz Palma, Paul Varilla, and RR De Leon—will make a name for themselves as the peskiest, most kangkarot crew in the UAAP. Facing such a group might force the usually methodical Green Archers into a mind-numbing defeat as they're not used to being pestered by the Red Warriors' brand of relentless kanto-style, run-and-gun basketball.
X-factor: Without a foreign player to lean on for the first time in years, the Red Warriors are as tight a group as the adorable kids on Stranger Things. Plus, these guys' nothing-to-lose attitude only makes them sneakily dangerous.
GRANDMASTER OF PRESSING D
Adamson University Soaring Falcons
Scouting report: The Tim Cone of the UAAP, ex-DLSU champion coach Franz Pumaren, now heads the resurgent Falcons. He brought a defense-first culture that has translated well in Adamson's preseason games. A couple of the 10 new players in the fold are very much game to deliver gutsy performances when they face DLSU.
X-factor: The architect of the Green Archers' suffocating backcourt press is back to stamp his mastery over a field of contenders likely to be baffled by this crippling defensive ploy.
LIFE AFTER KIEFER
Ateneo De Manila University Blue Eagles
Scouting report: The Blue Eagles are no slouch on offense. Aaron Black, son of PBA legend Norman Black, is primed to torch the UAAP this season. His offensive-minded posse includes Thirdy Ravena, Tyler Tio, Matt Nieto, Anton Asistio, Vince Tolentino, and Fil-Ams Raffy Verano and Jawuan White. What do all of these guys have in common? A knack for putting the ball through the hoop. If most of them get it going versus DLSU, they might avenge the 30-point drubbing Mbala and the rest of the Archers handed to them in the preseason.
X-factor: The Tab Baldwin effect. ADMU has the national basketball team head coach calling the plays. That has to count for something positive, right? We mean coach Tab must be doing something great for Ateneo aside from cutting academically ineligible players.
University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers
Scouting report: The Growling Tigers have lost the notable pieces that got them rolling last season—Kevin Ferrer, Ed Daquioag and Karim Abdul. According to rookie coach Boy Sablan (a Pido Jarencio protégé), the team is so underprepared he's not expecting too much from his boys this season. Whether his bluffing or just keeping mum about his strategies, don't believe for a minute that nothing much can expected from España's famous ballers. Defying the odds is nothing to them.
University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons
Scouting report: Ex-Blue Eagles coach Bo Perasol is UP's fifth coach in five years. Which only means a season spoiled by the inevitable frustrations that come with adjusting to a new system awaits. How can the proud Iskolars ng Bayan ever be hopeful?
At least with coach Bo leading the team, we can all expect the Fighting Maroons to be competitive despite their limitations. Aside from an upset or two, we see UP languising in the cellar for most of the season. But, who knows, maybe this is the year the esteemed institution finally begins to take rebuilding seriously.