Two perennial contenders and a fast-rising up-and-comer round out the list of teams that should be right in the middle of the title chase once the playoffs roll along. While many feel like this season could have a very tight race for the final four, anything less than the semifinals could be considered a disappointment for these top teams.
Ateneo Blue Eagles
Last year: 13-1, Champions
Coach: Norman Black
Roster: G-Boy Babilonia, Ryan Buenafe, Gwyne Capacio, Justin Chua, Nico Elorde, JP Erram, Frank Golla, Tonino Gonzaga, Isaac Lim, Von Pessumal, Kris Porter, Kiefer Ravena, Nico Salva, Greg Slaughter, Oping Sumalinog, Juami Tiongson
The four-time defending champion Blue Eagles will undoubtedly be one of the most talented teams in the league this year with premier big man Greg Slaughter, along with fellow Mythical Five member Kiefer Ravena and finals Most Valuable Player. Nico Salva all back for another run at the title. They become even more dangerous with the return of another former finals MVP, Ryan Buenafe, to the fold after taking a year off due to academic and weight-related issues. Buenafe is a talented scorer and creator with a penchant for showing up in clutch situations, and he should make them more dangerous.
If there’s a question mark for the team this season, though, it might be their defense on the perimeter, where they will be losing three of their better defenders in Long, Austria and Monfort. Good thing for them, the Blue Eagles will be returning a platoon of role players who will likely be capable of picking up some of that slack. Tonino Gonzaga, Oping Sumalinog and Juami TIongson could all see their roles increase this season.
But Ateneo coach Norman Black’s system will likely continue to revolve around the dominant 7-footer Slaughter, who will still be a matchup nightmare for most of the UAAP. With returning blue-chip talent, loads of championship experience, and a system they run to near-perfection, Ateneo has to be considered the early favorite for the title.
National University Bulldogs
Last year: 6-8, 5th
Coach: Eric Altamirano
Roster: Gelo Alolino, Henri Betayene, Reden Celda, Mark De Guzman, Jul-ashri Ignacio, Jeff Javillonar, Glenn Khobuntin, Cedrick Labing-isa, Emmanuel Mbe, Kyle Neypes, Bobby Ray Parks Jr., Tristan Perez, Robin Rono, Troy Rosario, Ajeet Singh, Dennice Villamor
The host Bulldogs should definitely be looking forward to the upcoming UAAP season. After an 11-game sweep of the FilOil-Flying V Preseason Hanes Cup over the summer, where they defeated many of their league rivals including Ateneo, NU has established itself as one of the title contenders this year. Behind the potent one-two punch of reigning MVP Ray Parks, who is expected to be even better as he returns for his sophomore season, and center Emmanuel Mbe, the Bulldogs have the talent to compete on the highest levels of college basketball.
NU will lose starting point guard Joseph Terso but will be adding a little depth with the addition of former national youth team members Mark De Guzman and Troy Rosario to their core that includes Dennice Villamor, Gelo Alolino and Glenn Khobuntin. But with no playoff experience in the UAAP, the Bulldogs have a lot of growing up to do during the season if they hope advance past the semifinals, or even win it all.
NU coach Eric Altamirano said the Bulldogs’ goal will be modest, which is to just make the final four this year. They certainly have what it takes to go further than that, and it would be interesting to see just how far they can go.
Far Eastern University Tamaraws
Last year: 9-5, runner-up
Coach: Bert Flores
Roster: Mark Belo, Arvie Bringas, Mark Bringas, Carl Bryan Cruz, Russel Escoto, John Foronda, RR Garcia, Patrick Guerrero, Anthony Hargrove, Alejandrino Inigo, Gryann Mendoza, Roger Pogoy, Terrence Romeo, Christian Sentcheu, Mike Tolomia
The Tamaraws will lose a lot of big names this season – Aldrech Ramos, JR Cawaling, Pipo Noundou and Ping Exciminiano among them. But their dynamic guard combo of former MVP RR Garcia and Terrence Romeo will be back to anchor the FEU offense once again, along with the emerging Mike Tolomia. Garcia and Romeo are as explosive a pair as any in the league, adding a reliable third scorer make them very difficult to stop.
FEU will be losing some size in the paint, but will be pinning their hopes on newcomer Anthony Hargrove and former La Salle forward Arvie Bringas to pick up the slack for the departing Ramos and Noundou. Returning sophomore Russel Escoto and 6-10 Christian Sentcheu will need to step up as well if they hope to repeat their finals run from a year ago.
If Garcia and Romeo, after another year of playing together, have finally figured out how to complement each other on the floor, then the Tams could certainly be just as good, if not better than they were last year. They’re definitely still right up there in top-tier of teams, and it would not be surprising to see them back in the title chase late in the season.