At the start of every year, coaches will have fans believing that the UAAP is a wide-open race and that any team can win it all.
That’s usually just coach-speak, in an attempt to not have to name favorites and risk giving snubbed teams some bulletin board material against them in their head-to-heads.
But in Season 76? It actually might be true. Some are expecting as many as six teams to contend for the title this year.
Here’s how the teams might fare this season:
(Last year: Final Four; W-L record: 9-5)
Coach: Eric Altamirano
Roster: J-jay Alejandro, Gelo Alolino, Mark De Guzman, Alfred Aroga, Nico Javelona, Joeffrey Javillonar, Glenn Khobuntin, Cederick Labing-isa, Emmanuel Mbe, Kyle Neypes, Rayray Parks, Tristan Perez, William Porter, Robin Rono, Troy Rosario, Dennice Villamor
Key losses: Henri Betayene
Key additions: J-jay Alejandro, Alfred Aroga
Outlook: Despite the big strides that their basketball program has made in the past few years, it’s still a little weird to say it out loud — the NU Bulldogs are legitimate title contenders this year.
For those that have followed UAAP basketball for more than a few years, NU is the team that once held the tag of the league’s “whipping boys.” At 58 years and counting, they currently hold the longest drought between championships in UAAP history.
But Season 76 just might be their best chance to end that drought. With the Bulldogs, it all starts with the guy who changed the game for NU — two-time Most Valuable Player Bobby Ray Parks.
With averages of 20.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks, Parks is an on-court stud and there’s no reason to think he won’t stuff the stat sheet for the Bulldogs again this year.
The main difference for them now will be his supporting cast.
Cameroonian center Emmanuel Mbe (12.9 points, 11.5 rebounds per game) has undoubtedly been one of the best centers in the league and he forms a scary 1-2 punch with Parks. But the Bulldogs also have a solid bunch of veterans behind them in Jeff Javillonar, Gelo Alolino, Troy Rosario, Mark De Guzman, and Dennice Villamor who all return with some very valuable final four experience under their belts.
Adding to the excitement this year are incoming rookies Alfred Aroga, a Cameroonian big man like Mbe who was named to the FilOil Mythical Five after averaging 14.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the preseason, and former Energen Pilipinas national youth team captain J-Jay Alejandro. The two will add some more options to an already solid NU core.
With depth and experience on their side, the Bulldogs have become real threats to challenge for the title. Parks has enjoyed plenty of individual success in his incredible UAAP career so far.
But the pinnacle of achievement in college ball has always been team success, and this season gives him his best chance to make his mark as the guy who brought a title back to NU.
UE Red Warriors
(Last year: 7th; W-L record: 3-11)
Coach: Boyzie Zamar
Roster: Dan Alberto, Lord Casajeros, Jairold Flores, Pedrito Glanza, Leo Guion, Ivan Hernandez, Chris Javier, Gino Jumao-as, Charles Mammie, JM Noble, Ralf Olivares, Luis Pujante, Adi Santos, Roi Sumang, JR Sumido
Key losses: Gene Belleza
Key additions: Charles Mammie, Ralf Olivares, Gino Jumao-as
Outlook: Funny what a short amount of time can do to a team. In the first round of Season 75, the Red Warriors were absolutely floundering. They were routinely getting blown out, even by shorthanded teams.
But after a coaching change, they looked a little more competitive, making late-game comebacks and knocking down buzzer-beaters to wrap up the season with a 3-11 record. This season? They’re coming back as contenders.
They have the body of work to prove it, too, after being crowned the champions in the recently-concluded FilOil preseason tournament. They knocked out several UAAP rivals in the process, including fellow favorites UST and NU in the playoffs.
Roi Sumang was his usual brilliant self in the tournament with 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.3 steals en route to being named to the tilt’s Mythical Five.
This team has built a solid core of young players ready to take a leap forward.
Sumang is already a bonafide superstar for this team. He was third in the league in scoring last year (18.4 points behind just NU’s Bobby Ray Parks and FEU’s Terrence Romeo) and finished second in assists.
Big man Chris Javier, who averaged 10.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, held his own against the behemoths of the league last season while making a name for himself after famously knocking down consecutive game-winners against UP and Ateneo in the second round.
But Javier and overachieving 6-3 forward Adi Santos — who averaged a team-best 10.5 rebounds last season — will get some much needed help in the paint with the addition of 6-foot-7 Sierra Leonean reinforcement Charles Mammie, who was impressive in the preseason, norming 14.2 points and 12.3 rebounds for the champion Red Warriors.
Mammie stepped up big in the finals of the preseason, grabbing 21 rebounds against an NU squad that had both Emmanuel Mbe and Alfred Aroga.
One of the big knocks against UE last year was size, but that’s no longer a problem. Neither would be depth or lack of experience.
Aside from key holdovers JR Sumido and Santos, the team is expecting to get contributions from Ralf Olivares, who was supposed to suit up last season before he sustained an ACL injury, and veterans Lord Casajeros and JM Noble, who are making their returns to the UE lineup.
Last year, UE looked like a team that had its core, starring Sumang and Javier, set to be very competitive in the long-term future. But that future has come early for UE and look for them to compete for a final four spot, or maybe even the title if things go well, this season.