The NCAA’s 89th season is ready to kick off and there is plenty of uncertainty heading into the tournament. One team is widely considered the heavy favorite for the title but with the departure of many of the league’s top stars — the faces of the NCAA, so to speak — the rest of the field is wide open.
With so many new faces, the only thing that can be expected, as the cliché goes, is the unexpected. There will likely be some surprises in as far as the final four goes, and there will be some new stars that will make names for themselves.
Here’s what to expect from each of the teams.
Arellano University Chiefs
(Last year: 8th; W-L record: 6-12)
Coach: Koy Banal
Roster: Keith Agovida, Nico Bangga, Julius Cadavis, Prince Caperal, Allen Enriquez, James Forrester, Donald Gumaru, Levi Hernandez, Jiovani Jalalon, Larry Malanday, Alwin Margallo, Zachary Nicholls, John Pinto, Ralph Salcedo, Adam Serjue
Key losses: Rocky Acidre, Vergel Zulueta
Key additions: Keith Agovida, Zachary Nicholls
Outlook: The Chiefs have generated a lot of buzz despite finishing 8th last year after a very impressive preseason, where they went 6-2 before falling to a UAAP finalist in the knockout rounds.
More importantly, they went 4-0 against NCAA opponents Perpetual, Saint Benilde, San Beda and JRU. It may seem like a big jump from their previous standing, but there are reasons why so many are high on Arellano this year.
This is a team that is coming back with most of their key pieces – James Forrester, John Pinto and Prince Caperal, to name a few – intact.
Forrester, their leading scorer at 12.2 points per game last season, looked like a real player and, if he’ll show some improvement in his game, could be primed to become one of the NCAA’s stars this season.
There’s also interest regarding players like Keith Agovida, who once scored 82 points in an NCAA juniors game, and Adam Serjue, who led the team in scoring in last year’s preseason but missed most of the NCAA season and this year’s FilOil after suffering a knee injury.
Agovida is expected to play a major role right away due to a team need at his position and he’s played well enough in the preseason, reaching double figures in four of their nine games.
If coach Koy Banal can get Agovida and Serjue back to the form that once made them very exciting prospects, in addition to his very solid core starring of Forrester and Pinto, then Arellano definitely have more than enough weapons in its arsenal to be competitive.
Given their eigth place finish last year, reaching the final four would seem like a very ambitious goal. But if the right things fall in place, the Chiefs look like they could pose a threat to any team this year.
Colegio San Juan de Letran Knights
(Last year: Runner-up; W-L record: 12-6)
Coach: Caloy Garcia
Roster: Raymond Almazan, Jonathan Belorio, Kevin Buenaflor, Fidel Castro, Mark Cruz, Franz Dysam, Jamil Gabawan, McJour Luib, Rey Nambatac, Ayodele Olotu, Jebson Po, Reynaldo Publico, Kevin Racal, Ford Ruaya, John Tambeling
Key Losses: Kevin Alas, Jam Cortes
Key additions: Rey Nambatac, Franz Dysam
Outlook: Letran enjoyed a breakthrough season last season. They finished third in the elimination round and, behind the heroics of Kevin Alas, advanced to the finals at the expense of San Sebastian and their star trio.
Losing Alas and veteran big man Jam Cortes will hurt a lot but the good news for Letran fans is that the future still looks plenty bright for the team.
They will be returning several players that played big roles in their finals campaign a year ago. Pint-sized Mark Cruz had a strong season, scoring-wise, last year and could be set to become their new top gunner.
Their best defensive player, Raymond Almazan, is also coming back fresh off an impressive stint in the PBA D-League where he normed 12 points, 12 rebounds and better than 2 blocks per game. Those two may be ready to enjoy breakout seasons this year.
The Knights will also be parading one of the league’s most anticipated rookies in Rey Nambatac, a former juniors MVP and national youth team player that averaged 16.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.5 steals. Nambatac has already shown some of what he can do in the preseason, leading the team in scoring in a couple of games.
Kevin Racal and Jonathan Belorio, two key players from last year’s campaign, are also on the roster but are dealing with injuries to start the season.
With their core set to come back armed with big-game experience, and Nambatac tabbed to replicate Alas’ role — aesthetically, at least, as a scoring, playmaking two-guard though not at the same level — new coach Caloy Garcia doesn’t need to tweak much to get this team performing near the level they were. Letran will likely be in the mix for the postseason yet again — and maybe even back in the finals, fighting for the title.
Perpetual Help Altas
(Last year: Final Four; W-L record: 10-8)
Coach: Aric Del Rosario
Roster: Justine Alano, Harold Arboleda, Femi Babayemi, Juneric Baloria, Nestor Bantayan, Mark Bitoy, Gerald Dizon, Chrisper Elopre, Joel Jolangcob, Kervin Lucente, Kevin Oliveria, Nick Omorogbe, Anthony Paulino, Scottie Thompson, John Ylagan
Key losses: Jett Vidal, George Allen
Key additions: Juneric Baloria
Outlook: Perpetual Help worked the old “Aric Magic” last season to make its first trip to final four after eight long years. With a special mix of Jett Vidal’s streak shooting, Scottie Thompson’s all-around brilliance and some key role playing from all over the roster, their grizzled coach Del Rosario steered them through a surprisingly successful campaign that they’ll hope to duplicate this year.
Thompson, a Mythical Five member and the reigning Most Improved Player, is more than capable of stepping into the limelight this season. He showed he was capable of stuffing every corner of the stat sheet last season, though he has to do that with more consistency.
But with Vidal leaving, the Altas will need to find a way to replace his scoring and clutch shooting. Nigerian reinforcement Nick Omorogbe lit up the scoreboards in the preseason, averaging over 20 a game, though he will have to split court time with his countryman, defensive specialist Femi Babayemi, in the NCAA.
First-year player Juneric Baloria, a discovery of Del Rosario’s in the leagues in Pampanga, could help with that as well, showing his scoring ability in the preseason with multiple games with 18 or more points.
With the well-rounded Thompson, a couple of scoring specialists and a slew of other players, like Justin Alano and Chrisper Elopre, capable of doing the little things, the Altas could be on track for another trip to the postseason.
And with the very experienced Del Rosario working his wizardry on the sidelines, there’s little reason to believe they can’t go far again this year.
» NCAA: St. Benilde barges into win column with victory over Letran
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» NCAA: Arellano sends Mapua to fifth straight defeat