NU Bulldogs need to find their identity before time runs out

MANILA, Philippines – Alfred Aroga sat expressionless inside a deserted NU Bulldogs locker room. Humongous headphones covering his ears, music blasting so strong that it could be heard meters away, and eyes staring into nothingness in front of him gave out the vibe that, as he gratified in silence, whatever thoughts were swimming inside his head were consuming his evening.

First, seconds passed by as reporters eagerly awaited the NU Bulldogs star at the hallway leading up to the lockers. Then, it turned into minutes. His teammates had already left the arena, and so did the coaches. The Mall of Asia Arena, where the UE Red Warriors just upset National University, was dead quiet, but whatever was on his mind certainly was not.

“I really got no words,” the reigning UAAP Finals MVP said in a low-key voice moments after he finally emerged out of the locker room door with a giant Bulldog baring its teeth. “Seeing us go 0-2 like this, it’s not a joke, and it’s not an excuse.”

Losing to La Salle in their season-opener was more forgiving. The Green Archers are Final Four contenders. They have a legitimate star in Jeron Teng, and a borderline one in Jason Perkins

Losing to the Red Warriors is a different conversation, especially when the Bulldogs were on top by 8 in the third quarter. Some people had UE winning less than 3 games this season. There’s no Roi Sumang or Charles Mammie. Heck, they don’t even have an import. Yet down the stretch of the game, the defending champions were the ones playing catch up, at the mercy of their less-talented but more organized opponents.

“I had food poisoning on Wednesday, so I had to be in the hospital then I’m not a hundred percent. This is not an excuse, but, man, I’m not helping my team. This is making me really, really mad. I’m not helping those guys at all,” said Aroga.

“Every time we’re losing games like this, man, I have nightmares. It’s not easy that you have a team that really counts on you but you’re not helping them. I feel like I’m betraying my teammates, my family, my surroundings. Man, it’s painful. 0-2. I have a lot of things in my head. “

Truth be told, Aroga was too hard on himself. He had 9 points and 10 rebounds despite just playing 25 minutes due to foul trouble against La Salle. He scored only 8 points against UE, but still grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked two shots.

The issue is, and this is why NU fans love him and Filipinos have come to adore him, winning is the only thing that matters to Aroga. It’s always been the case. He doesn’t care about how many points he’s put up or how many rebounds he’s grabbed, not when the only statistic that matters - the win-loss column - shows that the defending champions are already at the bottom of the standings.

The first loss was due to Jeron Teng’s heroics in the fourth quarter. Fine, it’s acceptable. But losing to Edison Batiller and the Red Warriors, who outscored them 28-9 in the third quarter? It’s unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong - Batiller is splendid, and easily one of the best performers so far this UAAP season. But losing the way they did - getting humiliated by a 27-5 UE run, by throwing away 31 - 31! - turnovers, and letting their opponents shoot 10-of-21 from downtown, mostly on open looks - is the opposite of NU Bulldogs basketball.

“We’re not playing the type of defense that we want to… we tried to win it with offense, but obviously it’s hard to win, especially with the way we played today - 31 turnovers,” NU head coach Eric Altamirano admitted after the game, the wear and tear on the defeat clearly taking a toll on him, as evidenced by his strained voice. “Very uncharacteristic. We showed a lot of undisciplined possessions.”

“When UE took the lead, we panicked. We panicked and we forced the issue, and then that cost more turnovers for us.”

Gelo Alolino was a bright spot, finishing with 23 points, 5, rebounds, and 4 assists, but he wasn’t immune to the careless play of the reigning champs, finishing with 5 turnovers himself.

The fifth-year veteran’s play on the offensive end is needed, what with Troy Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin moving on to the PBA. 

But here’s the concern: NU shouldn’t rely on Alolino’s offense to win games. Troy and Glenn were huge last season, though the team’s calling card - which has been the case since Altamirano took over - has been constant: defense. 

It was the Bulldogs’ headstrong defense that helped them evade elimination to the UE Red Warriors last season. It was their pressure defense that made the Final Four such a nightmare for Kiefer Ravena. It was their suffocating defense that beat the FEU Tamaraws’ well-oiled scoring machine in the finals.

That vaunted defense this season? It’s allowed 67 points to DLSU and 76 to UE, and that’s just not going to cut it.

WARRIORS BASKETBALL. UE had their way in the third quarter against NU. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

WARRIORS BASKETBALL. UE had their way in the third quarter against NU.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

“We haven’t asserted ourselves on defense, and then we’re committing 31 turnovers. Obviously there’s something missing,” said Altamirano.

So, why has that championship D regressed? 

It starts with Aroga.

“He’s finding his identity in the team,” Altamirano said about his second-year big. “Right now I think he’s lost, so we need to help him out, but he just has to keep his focus again on his strength.”

“He’s the type of player that’s not really an offensive player; he’s a defensive player, so now he’s put in a role na he has to assert himself more, help out in offense. He just has to relax and play his game.”

“I keep on thinking about how I can help the team. I’m super confused,” said Aroga in that hallway, the music still exploding from his head phones. “There’s a lot of things going on inside my head, and now we’re 0-2. If I keep on thinking, at the end we’re going to be 0-7. I really need to step up. I need to find a way.”

“I want to do so much to help the team and it’s killing me… when we lose games, I look at them, man, I just want to, I don’t know, I feel bad.”

In their defense, this is new territory for National U. As Altamirano told Rappler during the preseason, they’ve been so used to being the hunters; now they’re still getting used to being the hunted. Such is the life of the defending champion. That large target is now on their backs. They get the best out of every team every game. The pressure is always present. Wins are expected, while losses are magnified.

“We expected that before the season, that every team, every school will give their best against us. Two teams so far, they were successful against us. We need to bounce back and be positive. There can be no room for negativity,” said Alolino.

But to do that, to hold off their opponents, to retain their championship, National University has to do this first: find their own identity.

Who are they? What are the roles of the players? Is Alolino now the main go-to-guy on offense? Is he supposed to average 20 points a game? Is he supposed to do more setting up of his teammates?

How about Aroga - where’s his main focus? Is he the new Rosario? Does he have to assert himself on offense? Or does he go back to being the menacing barricade in the paint on the other side of the floor? Can he be both?

How about the other guys?

“I’m overthinking. Every time, I’ve overthinking. That’s what’s happening,” admitted the big man.

“Most of the teams are really stepping up, so we need to step up also. We need to find a way to bring our game back,” said Altamirano, who later added:

“We just have to continue finding our own identity this season.”

“I’m not panicking, but it’s 0-2 already. 0-2 is not a joke,” said Aroga. “I’m highly concerned. I’m not panicking at all. I’m really, really concerned. I need to find my identity. I don’t know. I need to really find it.”

Aroga’s statement above couldn’t have put the current state of the Bulldogs in any better light. 

The championship was last season and the honeymoon is over. UST, UP, and the rest of the UAAP is getting better, and no one is going to sleep on NU like last season. 

The warning cracks are there for the Bulldogs. Is it too early for panic? Absolutely. But is there no reason to be concerned? Absolutely not. –