How patience and brotherhood changed the CSB culture

Naveen Ganglani
After a promising preview, the tight-knit Blazers look all set to shake up the NCAA basketball landscape

 

 

TURNAROUND. The St. Benilde Blazers look nowhere near the team that won just 4 games last season. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The College of St. Benilde Blazers were in danger of having a great preseason campaign – and on that important Thursday, June 28, a great performance – go to waste as the UP Fighting Maroons threatened to escape with a victory and advance to the Filoil semifinal round.

Like a tug-of-war battle, the Blazers and Maroons exchanged runs, momentum, and the lead throughout the 40-minute contest at the San Juan Arena in what was an entertaining basketball competition between two teams who looked even, despite the disparity in talent.

Before the Filoil tournament started in April, it was difficult to blame anyone who would have thought that UP was on another level compared to CSB. After all, the Maroons tout a roster that includes one of the UAAP’s most lethal scorers, Paul Desiderio; the reigning UAAP Rookie of the Year, Juan Gomez De Liaño; super foreign student-athlete, Bright Akhuetie, and a bunch of other notable recruits.

The Blazers? They were coming off a 4-win, 14-loss campaign in the first year of the TY Tang era in 2017, which followed a 2016 season where the team won only once in 18 games. 

While UP had elevated itself to pseudo-championship contenders in its collegiate league, it was safe to assume the Blazers were still finding their footing in theirs.

So with the Maroons ahead by one, 74-73, with under 20 seconds to go, all signs pointed to UP holding off a pesky CSB team which, incredibly, went 7-1 in the elimination round of the tournament.

What happened next was even more surprising. As the bigger, 6-foot-7 Akhuetie attempted a shot in the paint to essentially seal the contest, 5-foot-8 sophomore Unique Naboa blocked his attempt from behind and then raced down the court to score in transition, giving St. Benilde the lead. 

UP, which then had costly turnovers to seal its fate, never bounced back. A few minutes later, CSB was celebrating an advancement to the Final 4 of the Filoil tourney – something not even its “big brother” DLSU could do – while the Maroons were left licking their wounds and preparing earlier than anticipated for the UAAP season.

“I just hope we continue moving on, moving forward with that and that kind of mindset and positivity,” Tang said after the game. “Character and attitude goes all throughout this season.”

For as tremendous as CSB’s performance was against UP and all throughout this offseason, what was even more noteworthy was the tranquility of the coaching staff – an important factor that helped the Blazers reach as far as they did.

The benches of both St. Benilde and UP provided a stark contrast in emotional reactions. While Maroons assistant coach Ricky Dandan (coach Bo Perasol was out of town) stomped his feet and screamed not-safe-for-work language at even the forgivable mistakes by his players, Tang, plus assistant coaches Charles Tiu and Ali Peek, were calm and relaxed after each Blazers possession – even the ones which ended in careless turnovers.

“We have to accept for a fact that we’re all humans, we’re going to commit mistakes,” Tang explained after the game. “What’s very important is what you do right after that mistake.”

He added, “That’s the more mental thing that we try to approach our guys with, that you got to recover right away, that you’ve got to forget about [the mistakes] and move on. I guess you can see it by observing us from the outside.”

When Tang took over the CSB program before the 2017 NCAA season, he preached patience with developing a winning culture. He knew back then that the guys on the team had grown accustomed to losing habits, and changing that wouldn’t be something that happened overnight.

For Clement Leutcheu, who has been at CSB since 2013, the new principles being implemented by Tang’s staff has worked wonders in improving the confidence of the players, which has resulted to better success on the basketball court.

“The thing is, we learn to [play through] our mistakes,” he said after scoring 16 points and grabbing 7 rebounds vs UP.

“That’s why most of the time, they don’t point it out right away because for sure, if you already know deep [inside] that you made a mistake, you know what mistake you made. By pointing it out right on the court, it’s going to bring you down [some] more, so they let us judge based on what we’ve been practicing.”

According to Tang, “I’m not really sure if that’s the kind of mindset that really motivates them or settles them down, but I would say that it’s something different maybe, in a way, from their previous seasons and I think right now they’re responding to what the call is.”

But it’s not just the understanding from the coaches that has sparked CSB’s turnaround. Aside from in-game ideals, the Blazers have also been asked to grow a bond outside of practices and games. It’s a common thought in basketball that trust and camaraderie between players can yield success, and so far, it’s worked wonder for the boys.

“The new coaching staff, they changed everything – the culture. The way we see things, the way we go to the games. The change is a totally different approach compared to the previous coaching staff,” said Leutcheu.

“It’s a brotherhood, it’s all about the brotherhood. Looking for your brother, knowing what’s wrong for your brother – if he’s happy, if he’s sad – knowing what’s wrong with him. Getting to bond with each other, it helps a lot,” he later added.

Accomplishing that means doing the little things that are often overlooked at basketball, especially for collegiate athletes. With the Blazers, it involves making sure they know when their teammates’ break periods are in between classes so group hangouts are possible. It means providing a few motivational words when one is down after a bad mistake, either in hoops or school. Going beyond basketball results to accomplishing more within the game.

A day after defeating University of the Philippines and earning its 8th victory in the preseason tournament, CSB’s campaign came to a close following a tough loss against the defending NCAA champion, San Beda, 78-71. 

The Red Lions, who have won the past two NCAA titles and 7 championships in the past 8 years, couldn’t easily put away the young, rising Blazers in what may have been a preview of one of the collegiate league’s next great rivalries.

Even just the mere though of that, after realizing where CSB was in the NCAA’s echelon just two years ago, is astounding.

“Definitely I’m happy with where we are,” said Tang. “Of course, I believe there can still be room for improvement, but coming from where we were last year and this year, there’s a huge jump already in terms of how we are playing.”

Getting here wasn’t easy. Players from the old era were cut, much to their dismay, but necessarily in order to bring it players who were dedicated to fulfilling the new regime’s ideals. Furthermore, Tang and his staff allowed the guys on the team to participate in game-planning and coaches’ meetings during practice sessions – an uncommon thing for collegiate basketball programs.

But doing so was critical to promote what the coaching staff wanted out of its boys: to develop a brotherhood. After all, leaders must practice what they preach.

“[It was] a lot of corrections, a lot of explanations and discussions,” Tang said about the beginning of their journey. “A lot of debate as well from the coaches here and there that the players see. I think that’s one thing – we let them see, unlike other coaches already prepare before they come in – we let them see that we also try to debate on things just on what we want to do.

“I think in a way, it makes them feel like a team because they can feel the involvement in the planning stage.”

When you learn about everything that’s taken place with the CSB basketball program in the past two years, it’s easier to understand why suddenly, the Blazers are on the horizon to change the landscape of the NCAA. They’ve put in the work both on and off the court, and they’ve given everyone a preview of what they can accomplish.

“For sure, we’ll give our all,” said Leutcheu. “We’ll go down there (the NCAA) and work our asses off and see where it brings us.” – Rappler.com