by Karlitos Brian Decena
The 74th UAAP basketball season has finally come to an end – at least for the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons. While the Final Four teams slug it out for the championship, UP still licks its wounds after once again failing to advance to the next round. Worse, the Maroons finished its campaign dead last in the eight-team tournament, coming up with only two wins in 14 games.
Though it can be argued that it was nasty to end the season at the bottom of the heap, this year’s run was not all bad for the Maroons. It’s a given that the season saw some awful moments – some were even downright cringe-worthy – but, it also produced some surprisingly uplifting instances as well. Here are some of the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences of the Maroons’ campaign in the 74th UAAP basketball season:
After having two winless campaigns in the past three years, the Maroons’ first victory against University of the East in their first game of the season drove UP students and alumni crazy. Avoiding another 0-14 record was already a feat.
But when UP shocked championship contender Far Eastern University in the first round, some fans just couldn’t hide their amazement, saying: “Bonfire at the Sunken Garden!”
Lack of heart when trailing
There is no doubt that the Maroons fought hard every outing, but there were times when the team just gave up early on games, especially when its opponents gained large leads midway through the games. UP trailed behind in most bouts, never to gain (or, frustratingly, regain) the lead. Some teams made stellar comebacks during the season, but, unfortunately, the Maroons wasn’t one of them.
To add insult to injury, the teams that were able to make comebacks did so at the expense of the Maroons. Twice, the Maroons squandered big leads to let its opponents grab what may at first seemed to be sure victory. The first heartbreak was dealt during the team’s second game against FEU, when it let the hot hands of Ryan Garcia melt a 16-point fourth quarter cushion, resulting in a 53-59 loss. The second serving of grief was a 72-73 thriller against La Salle, when UP lost grip on a 20-point first half lead.
Blame the losses on anything, from inexperience to losing composure late in the game, but one thing is for sure: UP must learn how to play their hearts out, from tip-off up to the final buzzer.
UP big men
The men who comprise the UP frontline – Alinko Mbah, Paolo Romero, Carlo Gomez and Mark Juruena – all had their share of spectacular performances this season, despite being undersized compared to the big men of other teams. An example was their second round match against Ateneo, when they did a great job clogging the paint to deny seven-foot behemoth Greg Slaughter in the post to keep the game close in the first half. UP lost that game, 58-73, but if the four had been able to withstand Slaughter’s dominance throughout the game, who knows, they could have pulled off an upset.
No doubt, there is still room for improvement on their games. Mbah, who leads UP with his 6.6 boards a game, needs to polish his offensive arsenal to become a dominant big man in the league. Gomez, Romero and Juruena (the only one with the outside shooting touch among the three) also have to toughen themselves up to be able to match their taller opponents.
Silungan was regarded as the Maroons’ main man when the season started. Fresh off a great rookie season last year, expectations ran high for the 6’3″ forward. Despite leading UP in scoring with his 11 points per game, Silungan actually struggled shooting all season long. There was even a stretch mid-season when he couldn’t make a triple (he missed 16 consecutive triples in two games!). Even after failing to make all those treys, Silungan still didn’t seem to realize that he is more effective as a slasher, performing double pumped layups after beating defenders in traffic with his dribble. Playing this style would help his team a lot, as opponents would always be eager of preventing him from scoring easy layups, which could result to two things: either tons of free throws or open teammates who could knock those free outside shots. Improving his shooting touch would make him a good player, but concentrating on his driving abilities would definitely make him one of the stars in the league.
After a stellar performance early in the season, including a 20-point production in their first round victory over FEU, Manuel struggled to get out of a shooting slump in his next games. Finishing the season with an average of eight points per outing – half of what he produced in his first five games – his presence was barely felt. Despite having a good start, Manuel ended up failing to provide the much-needed spark off the bench.
Bright future ahead
UP coach Ricky Dandan is set to work with the team’s core, made up of Jelo Montecastro, Manuel, Silungan, Gomez, Juruena, Romero and Mbah next season. It may be just a matter of time before the team gels and forms a competitive team. Just imagine the team’s starting lineup next season: Montecastro, who is way taller than his counterparts, manning the point; the sweet-shooting Manuel burying triples as off-guard; the quick Silungan beating his defenders off the dribble to drive his way to the basket at the three spot; the undersized Gomez hustling for rebounds and energy plays as power forward; and Mbah erasing shots and bulldozing everyone who gets his way at center, with reserve big men Juruena, who would spread the floor for the Maroons with his outside shooting, and Romero, who also does what Gomez shows in the floor, helping the UP frontline. Seems like a pretty good team.
Considering that this is only Dandan’s first year as the Maroons’ coach, the better-than-usual 2-12 result could be an indication of victorious days to come.
Again, with the emphasis on “could.”
Bright future ahead?
However, the question remains: is the future really bright for the Maroons? With the departure of Mike Gamboa and Miggy Maniego, who both played their last games as a Maroon this season, UP’s backcourt will become shorthanded, with only Manuel, Montecastro and Robby Wierzba left for the guard spots. It’s hard to tell if Manuel will bounce back from his generally miserable season, so another scoring guard would be needed to ease Silungan’s burden in offense. These shortcomings would not be problems if Mikee Reyes and Alvin Padilla return next season. But, like Manuel, their comeback remains uncertain.
Despite having a solid core of players in recent seasons, the Fighting Maroons is still in the cellar dweller. It has been 15 years since UP made the final four, and compared to the rapid development of the other teams, it seems UP is having a difficult time putting together a competitive roster.
After losing its key players, the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers, the De La Salle Green Archers and the Adamson Falcons were able to rebuild quickly and become crown contenders. With those teams – not to mention the Bobby Ray Parks Jr.-led National University (which is seriously gunning for the championship as the host school next year) and the promising University of the East Red Warriors recruits Roi Sumang and Chris Javier in the race – it seems that the drought is going to last longer.
Of course, UP, being the only state university in the UAAP, also lacks the resources to develop a solid basketball program as well-supported as the other schools’.
Even after watching Maroons lose its games, who would not be appeased by the angelic face of UP’s courtside reporter?
Where are you, fans?
Compared to the battalions of students (majority of them are actually forced to watch live by their professors but they still are fans) and alumni of the other teams who flock to the arenas, only a few UP supporters watch the games live. As one professor said, this lack of school spirit may be blamed on the “college-centric” culture of UP, as students are used to being confined within their respective colleges, supporting only “local” endeavors. This developed a poor sense of unity among the colleges, and consequently, poor support for the university as a whole. Fans boost the players’ morale and may even be instrumental in giving them energy and momentum to last the whole game.
Forget basketball. Just focus on other sports.
The Maroons’ miserable showing in basketball has always cast a shadow on sports that UP excels at. Many are aware of the losses UP suffers on the hard court, but few know of the victories won in other arenas.
The UP booters, for instance, are the defending champions in football, while the UP swimming and fencing teams have always brought home medals and pride. The UP Pep Squad has also been the many-time defending champion of the cheerdance competition. Truth be told, aside from basketball, UP sports fans have a lot to cheer for.
But, as the most popular sport in the country, basketball is the only event that receives regular and national televised coverage. Therefore, the team’s performance in the sport would always be scrutinized, and others would be, for the most part, ignored.
Paying attention and focusing on other sports would be a great move, but totally removing basketball from the minds of UP sports fans would be like, in American author Rafe Bartholomew’s words, telling Filipinos to stop eating rice.