MANILA, Philippines – Two years ago, National University surprised a lot of college hoops aficionados when they unleashed a towering Cameroonian in Emmanuel Mbe.
The six-foot-eight center asserted himself in the shaded lane and came tantalizingly close to winning the Most Valuable Player award.
As a matter of fact, he was reportedly just a missed RR Garcia three-pointer from sealing it.
Alas, Mbe’s Bulldogs missed the Final Four by the skin of their teeth.
Hopes were high, though, because the following season, they would have Bobby Ray Parks, Jr. in their fold.
Things were supposed to look up for NU in Season 74. Mbe’s dominant low-post game would complement Parks’ excellent perimeter skills.
And when the preseason finally came around, seemingly every element was there. Except for Mbe.
He was in France on a much-needed vacation. He missed all summer training camps, games and team activities and rumors actually floated that the Bulldogs’ prized big man will not be back for their 2011 charge.
Not quite there
Mbe did suit up for NU, but he was only physically present, his mind seeming adrift for the most time as he struggled — together with the team — all throughout the first round.
“It wasn’t easy for me to get back into the groove,” he told Rappler in an exclusive interview less than a month before Season 75 kicks off. “It wasn’t easy for me to adjust.”
It should be noted that the Bulldogs were expected to at least contend for a Final Four slot. After all, they won a preseason tournament even without Mbe, so logically speaking, an overall improvement with their center in tow is expected.
However, Mbe was unbelievably passive, as Parks got almost all the looks on offense. He was also less assertive on defense and averaged three less rebounds per game in his second season.
The once-promising MVP candidate had been grossly overshadowed by his new teammate, who, after averaging more than 20 markers per game, ended up winning the plum himself.
“I was almost MVP my first year,” Mbe shared. “I don’t know what happened.”
After being the league’s top center in Season 73, Mbe was relegated to third, with the arrival of seven-foot Greg Slaughter and the emergence of University of Santo Tomas’ Karim Abdul.
Mbe’s game picked up in the second round but it was not enough to stop rumors that he was leaving the team after the season, a possibility he confirmed eight months after.
“I wanted to continue my French studies,” Mbe said, adding that he almost transferred to Canada but remained to stay put and finish his studies at NU.
Mbe came back and professed his commitment to coach Eric Altamirano and the Bulldogs and with the preseason returns so far, he looks to have put those issues behind him permanently.
Even Altamirano, a multi-titled tactician, saw improvement in his big man.
“He has improved a lot. He is now a three-point shooter,” he said in jest after Mbe sank a triple that ignited a fourth-quarter rally by NU in their championship match against De La Salle University earlier this month.
“It’s really important for me,” Mbe said of his last season in the UAAP. “Last year, I wasn’t sure. But now, I’m really committed and I hope that our team makes it to the finals.”
Going for the win
He credits his teammates for his renewed zest for the sport and notes that the biggest weapon they have in Season 75 is not him or Parks, but the chemistry they have developed through playing together for the past year.
“You can see it in the court,” he said.
The NU Bulldogs took home the preseason title after a dominant 11-game sweep, and making the finals of the tournament for the first time. This year’s UAAP hosts were also responsible for toppling UAAP defending champions and four-peat titlists Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles from their preseason title campaign.
Whether he wins the MVP or Parks makes it back-to-back doesn’t matter to Mbe now, all he wants is the championship for the Sampaloc-based squad, a feat not achieved since the 1954-55 season.
“If I would be MVP, I want to be the MVP of my team, not of the league,” Mbe stressed. “I don’t want to focus on playing for individual awards. A championship is definitely more important.”
A trip to the Last Dance is certainly not far fetched for this stacked Bulldogs side, and if they do, Mbe is sure to be the first one to be happy, knowing that he made the right decision to stick it out with NU.
If they don’t, don’t expect him to sulk in defeat, because unlike last year, the Bulldogs will not lose because Mbe’s mind is wandering off some place or his focus, passion and heart left a lot to be desired.
For NU fans, he only has this promise to make.
“I’ll give it everything, I’ll give it my best.” – Rappler.com