Manila, Philippines – Once in a while, every team in the UAAP goes through the dreadful process of rebuilding.
Regardless of how invincible the said team might have looked in the years prior, there comes a time when each university loses its reputation of being title contenders as key players graduate. The team finds itself recruiting new prospects or developing existing talents to change its fortunes.
From 2008-2012, the Ateneo Blue Eagles built a dynasty that the history books will always remember.
Winning five championships in as many years, Ateneo joined an elite club of teams to achieve a “five-peat,” taking the rest of the UAAP by the throat and gripping it into submission during that stretch.
In the early years of their rule, the team was led by Chris Tiu, Noy Baclao, and Rabeh Al-Hussaini, who would all later pass on the torch to its younger mainstays like Nico Salva, Ryan Buenafe, Greg Slaughter, and Nico Salva: all of whom, in return, did not fail in making sure the Blue Eagles kept its spot atop college basketball.
READ: Life after a dynasty: 5-peat Eagles shoot for PBA dreams
But in 2013, under a new head coach in Bo Perasol, a revamped roster, and some unfortunate injury hits to Ravena, Ateneo was unable to do the impossible of winning 6 straight championships, losing its hold over the UAAP while rival La Salle escalated to the top.
Making things worse, the Blue Eagles didn’t even crack the Final Four to give DLSU a run for its money, losing a knockout match on the last day of the elimination round against a hungrier and more motivated UST Growling Tigers team, which went on to be the final hurdle in the Green Archers’ rise to the top.
But there was a positive to the lost season. Chris Newsome, the club’s highly anticipated rookie, made strides in his maiden campaign with the team.
Besides displaying impressive athletic prowess and proving to be a pesky defender, the New Mexico recruit put up 13.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 2.7 APG, and should have won Rookie of the Year had it not been for the UAAP’s rule of not handing the award to Fil-Am players.
Now in his second year, Newsome is going to take on more of a leader-type-of role.
With eight incoming rookies, the Blue Eagles are one of the youngest teams in the UAAP, and will undoubtedly need their freshmen to develop sooner rather than later in order to propel the team back to the higher echelon of the league.
READ: Ravena, Tolentino ready to take flight with star-studded Ateneo
For Newsome, his responsibilities now go beyond just producing on the basketball court.
“I mean, yeah, we’re going through a rebuilding stage,” he admitted in an exclusive conversation with Rappler. “Every school has to go through that. But, right now it’s just getting the rookies caught up to speed on how our program is.”
Getting them up to speed, apparently, included frequent visits out of town for training camp and team building purposes during the offseason.
“That’s what our training abroad was about,” he referred to the Blue Eagles’ visit to Las Vegas.
“That’s what our recent practices were about. Just getting everybody up to date and up to speed. Because they’re all so young, they really have to pick up and they’re expected to learn a lot in a short amount of time.”
Young would be the right word to put it. Ateneo has 16 players eligible to make it to the final roster, half of which are freshmen. And as much as the team would like to give its newcomers time to get incorporated with everything – adapting to college education, lengthier practices, change of social lifestyle – the Blue Eagles don’t exactly have the depth to get by in the meantime.
“At least there’s going to have to be a few that has to step up right away,” Newsome places it accurately.
But here’s a positive: the high-leaping cager has faith his new protégés can contribute right away.
“The good thing about it is they’re the cream of the crop. They’re the higher end of the rookies coming out of high school,” Newsome boasted of a class that has standouts Arvin Tolentino, Clint Doliguez, John Apacible, Thirdy Ravena (brother of Kiefer).
“They already know the game, now it’s a matter of them adjusting to the college style of play.”
And the rooks won’t have to deal with that problem alone.
“That can be difficult, but I believe we have good coaches and we have good teammates to help with that,” Newsome added, promising to contribute in any way he can to help develop his teammates’ potential.
The act of doing so, he says, shouldn’t be considered a voluntary thing (though he would be more than willing to lend out a helping hand to anyone in need). It’s an obligation expected out of a veteran such as himself – especially one that is dedicated to helping his team regain lost glory.
“That’s the role of any veteran – to help the younger guys mature. So of course I take it upon myself, and Kiefer also, to show these rookies the way and how to get back to the winning system, the winning culture that Ateneo used to.”
Newsome may have been just a year late to Ateneo’s 5-Peat party. But he isn’t wasting time contemplating on what could have been. Instead, he’s focused on the task at hand.
A new brand of Eagles
Before the younger Ravena, Tolentino, and company start displaying their abilities on the court, there’s going to be a long and grueling process of getting acclimated with Coach Perasol’s system, among the other objectives.
Communication will be key. Whether it be a few words of encouragement, saying whose man is who’s on defense, or helping direct an offensive set, the elder Blue Eagles have to make sure to constantly speak with their new teammates. It will prove critical with how fast the rookies can get used to the team.
And that relationship goes beyond just being teammates on the basketball court. It also means being a friend outside of training.
“One thing we do a lot is talking to them. Us as a team, we take it upon ourselves to communicate with them,” Newsome explained.
“We make sure if they have questions, we answer the questions. If they have concerns, or something they’re uncomfortable with, they know they can come to us and we’ll do whatever we can to help them.”
It’s all going to be essential, according to Newsome, who knows exactly what his new teammates are going through right now, being one year removed from experiencing the same issues.
“It’s not going to come right away,” he assured. “They’re going to have to play a few UAAP games to get the jitters out. That’s how it was for me and that’s how it is for everybody else. Once they get that out, I feel that will help them a lot.”
While some cough at the thought of a team laden with rookies making it far in a game where continuity and veteran experience are crucial to winning, Newsome tries to keep an open mind. After all, “Nobody goes through a season saying we just want to win 5 games or be there. Of course, we set our eyes on making it to the finals and winning the finals,” he argues.
But beforehand, a few things need to be taken cared of.
“We know you can’t get to the finals without doing it step by step and taking it one game at a time,” he said. “That’s what we try to stress to our rookies – it’s not about the end, but if you do the little things, the rest will follow.”
Regardless of the challenges up ahead, Newsome believes his team – as young as they may be – has what it takes to make it back to the finals and possibly add another championship banner to Ateneo’s already rich collection.
“I do. I do, actually. We have some really skilled rookies. We got the best recruiting class out of any UAAP team,” he mentioned, when asked whether the Blue Eagles have what it takes to win its sixth title in 7 years.
That much is true. And if the team’s rookies click sooner than expected, scouting the Blue Eagles will be a tough ordeal, regardless of how much film the opposition watches.
“We’re actually really unpredictable,” Newsome warned.
“Most people try to pin point on what we’re going to do. Who’s going to score, wherever it can come from – one, two, three, four, or five different players – we’re going to be unpredictable.”
To make Newsome’s message simple and clear: don’t write off Ateneo just yet.
Better yet, just don’t try to predict what they’re going to do, or what they’re going to be. – Rappler.com
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