Last year, three teams set themselves apart from the rest of the field after the long elimination round. In Season 88, with some of the teams coming back almost completely intact, it could be more of the same for the top tier of the NCAA.
San Sebastian Golden Stags
Last year: 16-2, Runner-up
Coach: Topex Robinson
Roster: Calvin Abueva, Lyle Antipuesto, Bobby Balucanag, Raymond Binuya, Jovit Dela Cruz, John Paulo Dones, Raffy Gusi, Michael Juico, Dexter Maiquez, Michael Miranda, Ronald Pascual, Paulino Rebullos, Ian Sanggalang, Mark Anthony Trinidad, Arvin Vitug
Last year, the Stags finished the elimination round tied for the top spot, but lost the playoff for the top seed and were eventually swept in the finals by San Beda. But they are returning a very strong core led by their big three of MVP Calvin Abueva, Ian Sanggalang and Ronald Pascual, who has been cleared to return to action after suffering an ACL injury in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League, while seeing their rivals take a bit of a hit in terms of losing players.
Guard Anthony Del Rio is looking like the only player they’ll really miss from the previous campaign, and they’re retaining so much talent that it’s hard to see them not figuring in the title chase this year. Abueva, of course, has been a force of nature since he debuted for the Golden Stags in 2009 but really came into his own last year when he averaged 21.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists in an absolutely dominant season. Sanggalang, the NCAA’s premier center, posted averages of 16.2 points and 11.4 rebounds and was named to the Mythical Five. Pascual is a natural scorer who lit up the scoreboard for over 17 points per game last year.
With the Big Three returning for another run, and an experienced and improving supporting cast that includes Jovit Dela Cruz, Michael Miranda and Dexter Maiquez, San Sebastian is looking like the early favorite to lead the pack.
San Beda Red Lions
Last year: 16-2, Champion
Coach: Ronnie Magsanoc
Roster: Francis Abarcar, Olaide Adeogun, Baser Amer, Jun Bonsubre, Anjo Caram, Arthur Dela Cruz, Rome Dela Rosa, Ryusei Koga, Melo Lim, Yvan Ludovice, Jaypee Mendoza, Dave Moralde, Jake Pascual, Kyle Pascual, MIchole Sorela, Richie Villaruz
San Beda has been the gold standard in the NCAA for the past few years, winning five of the last six basketball titles. But there might not be any team in the league that will have to make as many adjustments as the Red Lions. They will be missing leading scorer and Mythical Five member Garvo Lanete, who averaged 18.6 points for them last year, as well as center Dave Marcelo and the Semerad twins while also having to adjust to a new coach in Ronnie Maganoc, who replaced longtime coach Frankie Lim. On top of that, they might end up spotting their rivals one game in the standings because of suspensions from the controversial melee that led to Lim’s resignation. They will open the season with a game against Arellano University where they will have only six players, most of them rookies, available to play.
But that said, San Beda is still San Beda. They still have an incredibly deep roster that includes Baser Amer, Rome Dela Rosa, Jake Pascual, Kyle Pascual and Jaypee Mendoza. Plus, they get a boost in the entry of Nigerian center Ola Adeogun, who will serve out a four-game suspension, but will be eligible to play this year. Adeogun has shown an impressive skill set on offense in preseason tournaments and will be a huge presence this year.
The Red Lions will have their bumps early in the tournament, but once they have their full lineup available, San Beda will likely be right in the thick of things when it comes to determining who wins the NCAA championship.
Last year: 14-4, final four
Coach: Louie Alas
Roster: Kevin Alas, Junjun Alas, Alvin Almario, Raymond Almazan, Jonathan Belorio, Jam Cortez, Mark Cruz, Zyron Cudal, Jamil Gabawan, Joel Gabriel, Carlos Lituania, McJour Luib, Ayodele Oluto, Andrei Pantin, Kevin Racal
Letran gave San Sebastian a real scare in last year’s final four as a darkhorse pick, and should be even tougher this year after returning an almost intact lineup for Season 88. The Knights have a true star in guard Kevin Alas (17.5 points, league-best 5.4 assists per game) and a legitimate big man in 6-foot-7 Raymond Almazan (7.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, league-best 2.6 blocks), both of whom made the Mythical Team last year.
But the Knights are more than just a two-man team, with Jam Cortez, Kevin Racal and an improving Mark Cruz all being expected to carry part of the load for the hosts. This year, though, the Letran players will be coming in more experienced and that could make a difference in their hunt for a deep run in the tournament.
Letran will find it tough keeping up with the talented top two teams, but if they can get nightly contributions from their bench, they could spring a couple more surprises for the other powerhouses this season.
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