UAAP Season 74 Outlook: AdMU Blue Eagles

(image from
Will the Eagles fly high towards a rare four-peat, or are they doomed to be crushed by their own lofty billing?

Filoil Results:
AdMU over SBC, 90-87
AdMU over LPU, 92-77
AdMU over UST, 59-46
AdMU over AU, 70-53
AdMU over NU, 71-66
AdMU lost to SSC, 72-73
AdMU lost to DLSU, 61-66
AdMU over MIT, 63-56
AdMU over FEU, 82-74
AdMU over SBC, 75-56
8 wins & 2 losses

Who's flown the coop (in a manner of speaking)?
Ryan Buenafe, Chris De Chavez, Arthur dela Cruz, & Mark Tallo
De Chavez has some issues to deal with, dela Cruz reportedly returned to Mendiola, Tallo became a green-shaded turncoat, and Buenafe has his own things to get in order. I don't expect a lot of people to have many sleepless nights over De Chavez, but the other three comprise a different story. With the exit of Salamat, and after his stupendous Game 2 performance in the S73 Finals, Buenafe was supposed to take the reigns this year. I would've gone as far as saying, "Scrap the tournament and just hand Ateneo the title," if he were playing. But he won't play. Let's just leave it at that. At least he still has 2 years of eligibility. Would've been nice to see how he and Kiefer would play together though. 

Tallo and dela Cruz for me are really tough losses. Tallo (his leaving has really left quite a bitter taste in my mouth) could've been great had he been a bit more, shall we say, patient. Art was a revelation last year and would've frustrated many a defender with his next-to-impossible-to-block teardrop, but (okay stop snickering and pretending you know what really happened) he chose to go back to Beda. Good luck to both of them. So how will these affect the Eagles this season? Well, the good thing about Ateneo's roster is it's pretty loaded, which lends itself well to the old adage, "When God closes a door, He opens a window." And who will exploit those windows? Read on.

Don't be surprised if Nico Salva leads the Eagles
in scoring this season.
(image by Jan Dizon/Filoil Flying V Sports)
Who will fly high?
Nico Salva, Kirk Long & Emman Monfort
Salva will probably be coach Norman Black's main offensive option in the starting five. He'll probably split time between the 4 and 3 spots due to the absence of Buenafe & dela Cruz, as well as Oping Sumalinog not being exactly like his old self. His minutes and points have increased over the past three seasons and it'll continue this year. Look for him to play upwards of 25 minutes per game while averaging in double-figures throughout the season for the first time. 

This will be Long's last tour of duty and he should play a bigger role than ever. I chanced upon him on my way to San Beda for a Fr. Martin's Cup game a few months ago, and he modestly revealed he thought this year's troop of Eagles was quite strong. He's one reason for that strength. Capt. Kirk is coming off his best season (scoring-wise), but I'm not expecting him to break out this year. Long has always been smart enough to recognize if there's a more potent scorer in tow and this season he'll defer to Salva, Slaughter and Ravena on many occasions. He'll still get his 7-10 points per outing, mostly through breakaway lay-ups and perimeter shots, but I don't think he'll look for his shot more often than he had in the past. Still, he'll be invaluable for three things: his great basketball IQ, unequaled leadership, and distracting hair transformations.

Two years ago, Monfort averaged 4.9ppg and shot 38% from three-land. Last year he normed 8.9ppg and shot 39% from the Gateway parking lot. Not bad for someone who was not expected by many pundits to return to the roster after his first 2 years, but, like Long, I don't think he'll have a significant increase in his production. He'll still be a blur on the court, and his unorthodox (that's putting it mildly by the way) release will find more swishes than most others. He'll still be a pesky why-won't-you-go-away defender, and, despite his size, will continue being the tough-as-nails veteran who won't back down from the Joshua Webbs and Chris Camuses of the league.

Will Kiefer Ravena live up to everyone's expectations?
(image by Jan Dizon/Filoil Flying V Sports)
Who are the Endangered Species?
Greg Slaughter, Kiefer Ravena, Gwynne Capacio & Von Pessumal
Wait, why the morbid sub-header? The way I understand it, a living thing eventually becomes endangered because it's so well-hunted/poached that there's so few of it left. On some level, that applies to this present crop of Ateneo newbies.

What hasn't been written about Slaughter & Ravena? They're fantastic finds. Plain and simple. Their presence instantly makes Ateneo, and any team they BOTH join for that matter, an instant favorite. When was the last time 2 newcomers led the Eagles in scoring? I sure as hell cannot remember. They did it over the summer, and we all know how that ended (AdMU's first Filoil title duh!!!). Both will be playing with the opponents' sights trained well on them. They'll be hunted and poached for sure. Expect these two to receive a lion's share of hacks and fouls from frustrated foes.

And how about Capacio & Pessumal (two of the most hunted/poached Seniors prospects of the past couple of years)? Honestly, we won't see too much of them this year except on the TV screens looking over others' shoulders during huddles, but simply being part of this roster will help them inherit the roles of Long and Bacon Austria for the next few seasons. Remember Gec Chia not playing a ton of minutes in his first year in Team A, and then becoming a hero in 2002? That's the boat Capacio and Pessumal are in right now. Waiting in the wings. Just biding their time.

What will help them?
Experience, Coaching & End-to-End Ball
With all but 5 players (Ravena, Capacio, Pessumal, BJ Cipriano and Slaughter) having championship experience in the Seniors division, Ateneo has one of the most seasoned lineups around. This should translate to mental toughness, and to grace under pressure. It won't really come in handy when filling the box scores, but in a close game with a few minutes remaining? That's what separates the serious contenders from the wannabes.

Having Norman Black as an opponent on the hardwood would be a nightmare, but having him coach against your team would be just as frightening, if not more. He has won on every level he's coached in (save for the Asian Games), and he seems to have the UAAP Championship puzzle figured out. He's like the guy at the local Timezone playing Tekken you just cannot beat because he's done it for so long and he knows every trick and counter-trick in the book. And he's such a good developer of talent too. In his 6 years as the Eagles' coach, he's won 79 out of 102 games. That's a 77% winning percentage. Ack! Coach Black is just the best possible coach for this edition of Ateneo, which seems to have ALMOST the best possible roster.

So Ateneo has both the experience and the coaching. They also have the talent to succeed at both ends of the court. Consider these 2011 Filoil figures:

- #2 at taking care of the ball (only 14.5 TOs per games)
- Top UAAP team in FG% (42.7%)
- #2 UAAP team in assists per game (16.9)

- #2 in limiting opponents' 3pt% (25% only)
- Tops in limiting opponents' assists (12.5 only)
- Tops in limiting opponents' FG% (35.4% only)
- #2 in limiting opponents' point production (65.4 only)

The Eagles showcase one of the finest end-to-end basketball machinery in the local scene, and, if all goes well, we will see them atop many statistical categories come the season's end. Aside from coach Black's sublime system, this is mainly due to the supreme depth of the team. In all probability, the first guys off the bench for the Blue & White will be Justin Chua, Bacon Austria, Toniño Gonzaga, Kiefer Ravena and Juami Tiongson. Where else can you find a bench with that caliber of talent? 

So does this Ateneo team have any weakness at all? Of course. 

What will make it difficult?
Expectations, Target Acquired & No Man of Steel
Because of the big names on its roster, and the team's success in recent years, expectations from all corners is at an all-time high. For many alumni, this cliche will be true: anything but a title will be disappointing. That sort of expectation will put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the Eagles. Each win will be chucked to the we-expected-that bin, while each loss will be magnified to ridiculous scale. Ateneans will flock to the Big Dome in the thousands, all expecting to celebrate after two hours of watching their team on the floor. Tickets will sell like crazy and the media's eyes will be locked on each blue-hued feather. At least in terms of unwavering attention, this is Ateneo's year.

And the most important kind of attention Ateneo will get is from the team on the opposite end of the court in each gameday. For the other teams, the Ateneans are the bad guys. The Eagles are the ones who tried to "hog the talent," and are now trying to "hog the championships" by gunning for a historic 4-peat. It won't be surprising to see all of the other schools' students/fans cheering against the Katipuneros. OMG. The Eagles just turned to the Miami Heat. Target acquired, and Ateneo is the target. That kind of opposition is very dangerous. Some players play through it with overflowing bravado, raring to give the rabid critics a stick-this-up-yours performance, while other players shrink amidst the  enmity, content to simply sink in the shadows (no, that's not MEANT to be yet another cheap-shot at LeBron!;)). It's something no other Ateneo team has had to go through, and so it becomes a question of whether that kind of pressure might be too much.

The biggest knock on this Ateneo team, however, and the most tangible one too, is that the guy who won Season 73 will be watching from the sidelines rather than thrilling from baseline-to-baseline. Ryan Buenafe's absence will be telling. Had he played in the Filoil tourney, I am 110% sure Ateneo would've swept it. He's just a cut above the rest, which is strange since he doesn't seem to be the best at any single particular facet of the game. He's not the highest jumper, not the best shooter, at times seemingly lackadaisical on defense, and his numbers are far from his near triple-double days in San Sebastian. But, in many ways, having him in the past three seasons has been one of the biggest reasons the blue side has enjoyed so much success. Not having him is the BIGGEST difference of Season 74's Ateneo and the last three champion squads. And that difference might be enough for all the promise of this season to come crashing down.

Can Capt. Kirk end his memorable UAAP career
with another crown?
(image by Jan Dizon/Filoil Flying V Sports)
Will they make the FInal Four?
With this lineup? And this coach? And that much experience? And being the season's hosts at that? Let's just put it this way, if Ateneo does not make the Season 74 Final Four, they will be the stuff of bar-room jokes and cafeteria laughter. Katipunan, Xavierville and Rockwell establishments will be rife with drunken grown men and their flood of tears.

I'm seeding them as
#1 -- As some of my friends have observed, I've opted to downplay Ateneo's chances the past three seasons. Call it false humility, or tempered expectations. This season, however, in all honesty, doing that is excruciatingly difficult, but I still hope I've succeeded. Nevertheless, no amount of downplaying can unseat the Eagles from being this year's top seed. Add that to the FACT that no UAAP host has ever won the Men's basketball title since the inception of the Final Four format. God, I hope I don't jinx it.

So, after all the previews and pretend-I-know-what-I'm-taking-about analyses, will Ateneo win the championship?
I hope so. They have everything on their side -- the deepest roster, the most decorated coach and arguably the most dedicated alumni support. It's their title to lose. But there is one thing that stands against them -- history. In the past 5 seasons, no top-seeded team has ever won the title (at least how I seeded them haha). UST upset Ateneo in '06. DLSU tripped UE in '07. And arguably the "strongest-on-paper" teams of the past three seasons (DLSU in '08, FEU in '09 & '10) all faltered. It's the first time I'm ranking Ateneo atop the ladder, which I don't feel comfortable doing. I hope that somewhere along the way Ateneo encounters a roadblock, maybe a certain degree of failure, because no team ever won the BIG one by simply listening to everyone say they're the best. Champions face adversity and conquer it. I hope these Eagles get some adversity, and I hope they conquer it

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