MANILA, Philippines – As the Ateneo Blue Eagles face a handful of challenges in their campaign for retribution, coach Tab Baldwin believes his backup big man could determine their success in the upcoming UAAP men’s basketball tournament.
Baldwin said reigning league MVP Angelo Kouame is still on the road to making a full recovery, which puts a larger load of responsibility on the shoulders of reliever Geo Chiu.
“The knee issue is still there,” the 64-year-old Baldwin said of Kouame’s injury.
“It’s much better, obviously, but he takes a bit longer to recover after a tough game. I think we’ll have him not on limited minutes, but limited preparation time. We won’t have him fully involved in practices, especially the day before the game.”
Kouame, who is entering his fourth season of playing eligibility, was diagnosed with a meniscal sprain and partially torn ACL in June, which kept him sidelined for national team competition and Ateneo’s championship-winning World University Basketball Series campaign in Japan two months later.
Blue Eagles team manager Epok Quimpo confirmed Kouame did not require surgery to remedy his ailment, although the rehabilitation has been a process that’s taken a little bit of a toll on the big man both physically and mentally.
Baldwin confirmed Kouame only began playing competitive 5-on-5 basketball five weeks ago.
“He seemed okay in the preparation games although his fitness is not at a 100% yet. He’s still carrying more weight than I would like and that’s not good for the knee. We’ll just have to kind of play it by ear,” Baldwin told Rappler.
“The medical guys say he’s good to go. He’s not the same Ange, that’s for sure, but he has the same heart.”
Baldwin, who’s currently serving the second year of a new five-year contract with Ateneo, would ideally like to see Kouame shed some pounds entering the season, but admits the time to accomplish that is limited.
“You don’t have time to focus on that. You can’t send him out to do extra fitness work and it’s hard to do fitness work when you’re trying to take care of a leg,” the multi-titled coach said.
“You can’t do much running, but ideally, he could stand to lose some weight, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Although his statistical contributions played a major role in determining Kouame as the league MVP last UAAP season, his impact on the basketball floor goes beyond the numbers.
On offense, he scores in the paint, capitalizes on second-chance opportunities, screens well for his teammates, and is a major vertical threat as the roll man to the rim.
On defense, he can protect the rim, help trap opposing guards, disrupt passing lanes, recover for teammates, and switch out on speedier ball-handlers. He’s also a dominant rebounder.
Getting Kouame in the same mindset he’s played with will be another important task to monitor as the season progresses.
“[Ange] said, ‘I just have to do a better job of putting it out of my mind,’” said Baldwin, sharing the mental-related challenges his starting big has faced.
“It is what it is. The season is going to start. For sure it’s been an issue for him mentally. He worries about it in light of his professional career. You don’t want to do something that’s going to put that in jeopardy, but at the same time, that’s the life of an athlete – you never know.”
That’s why Chiu’s development will be integral for an Ateneo team aiming to accomplish what they did the last time they lost in the finals under Baldwin: regain the title a season later.
“Our season could be summed up in terms of we’re only as good as Geo is, because he gives us a very important role. He’s a point of difference from a lot of other teams – another genuine center with real size,” Baldwin said.
“If he can compete against a lot of the other foreign players, which I think he’s capable of, then that gives us a chance to use Ange [less], to maybe stretch him out a little bit in the season, and get more 100% games out of him.”
The 21-year-old Chiu averaged 11 minutes per game in Season 84 and shot an impressive 52% from the field, including 50% on 44 “defended” attempts, according to UAAP statistics.
However, Chiu averaged 1.94 fouls despite playing limited time on the court. For comparison, Kouame fouled 1.82 times but played nearly 27 minutes per contest.
Additionally, Ateneo was only +17 on the scoreboard in the near 177 minutes of action Chiu played, which was the lowest mark for any Blue Eagle who played at least 170 minutes. The guy next to him was Chris Koon, who was a +68 in nearly 15 minutes per game.
The offseason saw promising development for Chiu, who displayed a more aggressive attack in the paint during the Blue Eagles’ WUBS performances. He was effective on the boards, although his finishing around the rim and mid-range game could use improvement.
“There’s been a lot of positives but the big negative is consistency,” Baldwin commented. “Getting those positives on a regular basis. He tends to be up and down a little bit.”
“You have to remember he’s still a young player. He isn’t a Filipino big man at 6-foot-5. He’s a genuine 6-8 plus big man,” he added. “These guys peak in their 30s. He’s very much in the developmental phase of his life.”
Baldwin used big men in the US NCAA and NBA as an example of players who are given time to come into their own as basketball players, which provides hope that the best is yet to come for his backup big.
But given the challenges Ateneo faces, which includes key veteran departures from last season’s roster, time isn’t as flexible for these Blue Eagles.
“We’re sort of asking Geo to play ahead of his development this season and next season, and hopefully he can do that.”
The first test comes on Sunday, October 2, when Ateneo faces a familiar rival in Far Eastern University.