An epic battle begins: FEU-Ateneo Final Four preview

MANILA, Philippines – The UAAP Final Four kicks off on Saturday, November 21, with two rivals in the Ateneo Blue Eagles and FEU Tamaraws going head to head. 

Both teams have what it takes to make for a compelling and competitive series: stars on both sides, rabid fan bases, good coaching, and ability to dominate on both ends of the floor. 

The Tamaraws enter knowing they need just one win to make it to the UAAP Finals a second straight year and for the fourth time in the last 6 years. On the other end, the Blue Eagles have to be at their best for 40 minutes to force a do-or-die game and extend the college careers of their main guys.

How they got here

The FEU Tamaraws entered UAAP Season 78 with a world of expectations and quickly exceeded them by trashing Ateneo in both teams’ first game of the season. 

The Tamaraws suffered a hiccup in their next game by falling to the UST Growling Tigers, but then responded by winning 9 straight games - including another win against Ateneo - before losing to UST anew in a game they were up big in the first half. 

FEU then lost their third game of the elimination round against a desperate NU Bulldogs squad who were battling for their Final Four hopes, but quickly recuperated in their eliminations finale against another desperate team in La Salle despite playing just their second and third stringers in the tightly-contested fourth period.

After Ateneo suffered that embarrassing opening loss to FEU, they bounced back by winning their next 3 games against Adamson, NU, and UE. The Blue Eagles then suffered their most troubling stretch of the elims by going 1-3 over their next 4 contests, including blown double-digit leads in losses to UST and rival La Salle.

After Ateneo opened the second round falling to FEU, they fell to 4-4 and the noise surrounding the departure of head coach Bo Perasol became deafening. However, the Blue Eagles rebounded in style by finishing the elimination round winning 5 of 6 games, including big wins against UST, La Salle, and NU

Ateneo also dealt with much outside distractions throughout the elimination round. Besides the cries for Perasol’s departure, second-year player John Apacible was also involved in a drunk-driving incident that left him suspended for the rest of the season. 

The team’s rim protector, Chibueze Ikeh, was also arrested on charges for abuse that he later argued against after posting bail. A few weeks later, there was noise that rookie Hubert Cani was looking to leave, which was quickly debunked by his father.

DUNK IT. Kiefer Ravena attempts a poster slam against FEU in their first-round game. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

DUNK IT. Kiefer Ravena attempts a poster slam against FEU in their first-round game.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

How they matchup and keys to winning

For most of the season, FEU has looked nearly unbeatable. That’s because they get the job done on both ends of the floor.

In the elimination round, the Tamaraws topped the league in scoring (74.7 PPG), field goal shooting (40.6%), perimeter points (31.2 PPG), and bench points (37.4 PPG). They also allowed just the second most points next to NU (67.6 PPG), allowed the worst shooting percentage to opponents (36.8%), and cleaned up the glass well by grabbing the most rebounds (48.2 RPG).

So does FEU even have a weakness? Is there a point of attack Ateneo can take advantage of to make their first finals appearance in 3 years?

Turnovers.

The Tamaraws averaged 18.1 turnovers per game, which is actually just fifth worst in the league. But it wasn’t that long ago when they were coughing up the second most giveaways in the UAAP - a statistic that started to look better after they faced two teams (Adamson, La Salle) in their final 4 games that don’t do a good job of creating turnovers.

The Tamaraws, however, still finished averaging an allowed 16.6 turnover points per contest, which ranked second worst in the elimination round. Another issue is that FEU doesn’t force a lot of turnovers against their opponents (just 14.1 a game, last in the UAAP), although that’s negated by their solid half-court defense. 

The Blue Eagles will most definitely have to take advantage of that if they want any hope of getting past FEU. Those Kiefer Ravena isolation plays simply won’t work against a team that’s become so great at switching pick and rolls and using their length to force tough jumpers. 

The Tamaraws also have two solid rim protectors in Raymar Jose and Prince Orizu, so Ateneo won’t be able to rely solely on scoring inside - not that they have many reliable options in the post anyway.

Unfortunately for the Blue Eagles, they’re ranked just fourth in fastbreak points with 10.1 a game and sixth in turnover points with 15.4 a game. You can make an argument that they’re better at scoring points off turnovers now that Adrian Wong and Aaron Black are getting more minutes, and those two rookies certainly need to be lethal on the break to give their captains a chance at closing games down the stretch.

In the closer game between both squads in the second round - where FEU won 66-61 and the game was much tighter that the score suggests - Ateneo forced 19 turnovers out of the Tamaraws and turned that into 21 points. That helped to a point where the Blue Eagles had a shot winning that game despite their top two scorers combining to go for just 7-of-25 from the floor. 

Another bit of good news for Ateneo is that they have two guys in Ravena and Pessumal who can explode on offense at any moment. Remember those 6 3-pointers Ravena hit in one quarter? All it takes is for one hot-shooting stretch for either of those two to get going, and when they do, FEU’s defense could be held helpless.

SHUTDOWN. Mac Belo played a big role in limiting Kiefer Ravena in their second-round encounter. Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

SHUTDOWN. Mac Belo played a big role in limiting Kiefer Ravena in their second-round encounter.

Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

Although the Blue Eagles ranked just fifth overall in points scored, they were the second-best 3-point shooting team of the eliminations as they converted 30% of their attempts from downtown. And for all the talk of how Ravena-centric the offense can be, the Blue Eagles finished second in assists with 15.2 a game.

When you look at the defensive statistics of Perasol’s team, you’d be surprised how potent they’ve been. They ranked third in points allowed (68.1), third in FG% allowed (37%), third in rebounds allowed (42.9), third in fastbreak points allowed (8.7 PPG), and third in second chance points allowed (8.7 PPG).

So why has Ateneo failed to beat FEU?

First: perimeter points. The Blue Eagles haven’t done a good job rotating quick enough to FEU’s shooters, who combined for 74 points from the perimeter during their elimination round matchups.

Second: rebounding. The Tams outrebounded Ateneo 51-38 in their first meeting and then 46-40 in the second meeting. FEU has also outscored Ateneo on second chance points, 29-14. 

Third: the Tamaraws have forced the Blue Eagles into the Kiefer Ravena show. The league MVP has attempted a team-high 33 shots against FEU this season, and that doesn’t count the attempts he took when garnering his 18 free throw attempts. The next guy who’s taken the most attempts is Pessumal, with 22. 

It became clear during Ateneo’s winning streak in the second round that they are at their best when Ravena balances roles between distributor and scorer, and he has to make sure to stay in that mindset for his team to have the best chance of winning.

If the Tamaraws want to take care of Ateneo, they simply have to follow the script they’ve used: out-hustle them on the boards, take advantage of second-chance opportunities, and make Ravena have to beat them one-on-one rather than sending double teams his way, leading to open shots for his teammates.

FEU coach Nash Racela deployed Mac Belo as Kiefer’s sole defender in their second-round matchup, and it worked wonders.

Avoiding the turnovers would help, too.

If all else fails, well, Ateneo has struggled immensely from the free throw line this season, going 196-of-324 for 61% shooting. If there’s anything watching years of UAAP basketball has taught us, it’s that free throw woes tend to cost teams direly in the Final Four.

Prediction

FEU wins series in two games.

– Rappler.com