The FEU Tamaraws owned 2015, but can they rule 2016, too?

With high preseason expectations and the consensus deepest roster among the eight UAAP schools, Far Eastern University was the obvious and undeniable title favorite heading into Season 78. To suggest otherwise was to try too hard.

For much of the season, however, the Tamaraws were overshadowed by either the UST Growling Tigers’ amazing overachievement, DLSU’s inconsistency, or the off-the-court drama surrounding the Ateneo Blue Eagles. 

Throughout all the brouhaha, FEU kept things focused and set — it was all about basketball.

And beautiful basketball it was.

Champs again. Ten years in the making.
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The Moraytans’ big three of Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia, and RR Pogoy was clicking on all cylinders. Russel Escoto was finally healthy for one whole season. Newcomer cum transferee Monbert Arong proved to be a big spark for the second unit. Achie Iñigo, Reymar Jose, and Prince Orizu all understood their roles, and played them to the best of their abilities. 

We were treated to the clockwork Tamaraws.

There really was just one team that seemed to have FEU’s number — UST.

UST trounced FEU on both occasions they met in the elims (72-71 in the 1st round and 85-76 in the 2nd round), and the España quintet eventually copped the top overall seed heading into the Final Four. The Tigers effectively quashed all preseason predictions of their being just a fringe Final Four team, and gathered a lot of momentum on what seemed to be a Cinderella campaign.

FEU, however, wouldn’t be denied for a second straight year. One remembers clearly, of course, how FEU was dumped by National University in the Season 77 Finals despite winning Game 1. This time around, against a school that bested them twice in the elims, the Tamaraws were the unexpected underdogs. Yes, despite their depth and experience, FEU wasn’t heading into their titular tussle with UST as overwhelming favorites. 

From the moment the opening whistle was blown, though, it was clear that this was a very different FEU team. Coach Nash Racela, long held as one of the best basketball minds outside of the PBA, clearly came prepared for UST. The Tamaraws leaned on the clutch shooting of RR Pogoy in establishing a double-digit halftime lead in Game 1 and effectively kept UST at bay till the final buzzer, 75-64. It also seemed like FEU would be able to sweep the series in Game 2, but Kevin Ferrer’s memorable second half explosion enabled the Tigers to force a rubber match. 

In Game 3, things were nip-and-tuck all throughout. One run was followed by another counter-run. It was like watching two boxers trading blows for twelve rounds. In the end, however, FEU’s depth and poise showed. The Tamaraws’ big three of Belo, Tolomia, and Pogoy came through on the season’s biggest stage, in the most crucial moments, to hand FEU its first UAAP men’s basketball title in a decade.

It was awesome. The best team bagged the biggest prize. It was just. It felt right. For so long, FEU was buoyed by an expanded and extended pipeline of talent. For so long, they had one of the most competitive Juniors programs. And yet, for so long, they floundered and fell short. 

Not in 2015. Not now. This time, with provincial recruits Belo and Pogoy and Juniors product Tolomia all ripe and ready, the Tamaraws took matters in their own hands and hoisted their golden diadem.

Not long after, they repeated the feat, ruling the 2015 Philippine Collegiate Champions League (PCCL) and eventually got named co-champions (controversy notwithstanding) together with San Beda College. FEU’s 6’8 Fil-Norwegian rookie Ken Holmqvist was eventually named Most Valuable Player, and he is certainly one to watch in Season 79.

Speaking of Season 79, one big question will be this: Can FEU remain a strong team and have a solid shot at defending their title?

This despite no longer having their big three along with graduating players Francis Tamsi, Achie Iñigo, and Russel Escoto. 

If rumors and reports are to be believed, however, FEU should have a strong wave of new talent coming in. Former Adamson playmaker Axel Iñigo is set to take his kuya’s place for the Tamaraws, while a couple of Fil-Kiwi prospects — 5’11 guard Joseph Nunag and 6’4 Kenneth Tuffin — have been named as guys to watch. Of course, veteran holdovers like Reymar Jose, Monbert Arong, Ron Dennison, and Ricard Escoto will be among he team’s backbones along with expected rising star Wendell Comboy, Prince Orizu, and the Holmqvist brothers. 

Of course, competition will remain very tough, especially with the recently-revealed coaching carousel shaking things up. NCAA Season 90 champion coach Aldin Ayo has moved to DLSU, bemedalled former DLSU tactician Franz Pumaren will call the shots for Adamson, and no less than Gilas Pilipinas mentor Tab Baldwin has been named as Bo Perasol’s replacement in Ateneo, which is set to be bannered by former San Sebastian star CJ Perez and Kiefer Ravena’s younger brother, Thirdy. The Green Archers are also expected to get a huge boost from big guy Ben Mbala, while teams like NU and UE are hoping their young cores will mature fast enough before the start of next season.

Amidst this state of perpetual flux, it is FEU, again, that seems most stable. 

Without a doubt, 2015 was a #blessed year for FEU, and if plans don’t miscarry, they stand a good chance of winning back-to-back this 2016.




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