UAAP Basketball

Five-point swing: How the UP Maroons can fight back in UAAP Season 87

Simoun Victor Redoblado

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Five-point swing: How the UP Maroons can fight back in UAAP Season 87

SOAR. Francis Lopez in action for the UP Fighting Maroons in the UAAP Season 87 men's basketball tournament.

UAAP

The UP Fighting Maroons seek to contend again for the UAAP championship after falling short of the Season 86 crown

MANILA, Philippines – It all began with 5 points.

With 5:20 left in Game 3 of the UAAP Finals, La Salle guard Evan Nelle drained a trey to cut UP’s lead to a point. The scoreboard read 67-66, but I didn’t fret.

In the next possession, Kevin Quiambao drove past Harold Alarcon, looked Malick Diouf in the eye, and sank the go-ahead floater. Still, I refused to panic.

Then four minutes of game time went by, and my optimism wilted like a dying sunflower. The baskets made by Nelle and Quiambao had swung the momentum in La Salle’s favor, and try as they might, no one in a Fighting Maroons jersey could get their shot to fall.

Time ran out, and the stone cold truth sank in: My team had lost. Right before I switched off the TV, the final score seared itself into my consciousness. 

UP, 69. La Salle, 73.

It’s been weeks since that Game 3 loss, but that four-point gap remains an unfilled void in my heart. What, then, is a UP fan to do? I guess I could spew vitriol at the winning team. Or vent my ire on the referees. Or – and this is a particularly tempting one – crouch in a corner and cry.

But none of these options sounds viable to me. I recognize Quiambao for the transcendental talent that he is, and I’ve been a fan of Topex Robinson since his Red Bull Barako days. Though the officials were by no means perfect in that finals series, I’d be crazy to think that they were responsible for UP’s rushed shots and turnovers in Games 2 and 3.

As for sobbing? The last time I checked, JD Cagulangan didn’t save UP in Season 84 by shedding tears. Down 5 with less than two minutes left in the biggest game of his life, Cagulangan hustled, hit a big shot, outwitted Ateneo’s defenders, and hit the shot to win the long-awaited championship.

This is basketball, and if there’s anything this sport has taught me, it’s to play on. Next play, next game, next season. Every minute on and off the court is an opportunity to outdo yourself, and if you use your time wisely, you put yourself in a prime position to win any prize you aspire for.

Now, if there’s anything that UP has taught me, it’s the idea that freedom of expression comes with the responsibility of critical thinking. Translation: No one’s stopping you from typing away on your keyboard, but for the love of Mang Larry, please put some thought into it before you hit send.

I have a few ideas for how the men’s basketball team can bounce back in Season 87, and trust me when I say that I did my homework for this. Prior to Season 86, I watched the Fighting Maroons duke it out in PinoyLiga, Ballout Sports, and the FilOil EcoOil Preseason Cup. All of UP’s games in the preseason, elimiminations, and postseason have provided me substantial insight into each player’s tendencies, assets, and ceiling.

I’ve also kept tabs on players who have committed to the Maroons for Season 87. Clips posted online offer a glimpse of how these young men can address certain weaknesses and help UP maintain its title contender status.

So, how can the Maroons fight back and fight better in Season 87?

Make Francis Lopez the focal point

Let me start with a painful irony.

Coming into this season, every UAAP observer knew that UP’s depth was potent enough to secure a third consecutive trip to the finals. And yet, when it mattered most in the title series, none of the players on this celebrated roster stepped up to ignite the offense and turn the tide against La Salle.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit La Salle’s defense for dictating the pace and forcing the Maroons to take several contested shots outside the paint. But, as I watched the second-half fiascoes in Games 2 and 3, an unexpected thought occurred to me. In these moments, we don’t have a go-to guy, do we? 

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love how multiple players shared the scoring load for the vast majority of Season 86. When the stakes are highest, though, there has to be that one shot-maker who takes charge and spearheads the attack. Think Zavier Lucero and JD Cagulangan in their championship campaign, as well as Carl Tamayo in Season 85.

In 2024, I think that guy has to be Francis Lopez.

Let’s stop kidding around, shall we? By Season 87, sophomore-year Lopez would be the best all-around player on UP’s roster. With the departure of Malick Diouf, the reigning UAAP Rookie of the Year becomes the team’s best prospect to get high-quality baskets in the paint and open up shooters on the perimeter. In other words, if UP’s offense finds itself in a rut again in a crucial situation, Lopez – with his penchant for drawing fouls and underrated passing skills – should be the go-to guy.

Heck, I’d go beyond trusting Lopez in the clutch. I say: build the team around this dude. Give him more touches, feature him more on offense, and let his playing time eventually hit the 30-35 minute mark. (I’m not suggesting, of course, that he should take all the shots. More on this later.)

Why am I convinced that this approach would work? Well, because another team did it and they just won a chip. Throughout this past season, Quiambao was the undisputed crown jewel of Robinson’s system. Key roles were played by Evan Nelle, Mike Phillips, and Mark Nonoy, but whenever La Salle played, you knew that the ball was going to Quiambao whenever they needed to seize control of the game.

Lest we forget, Quiambao revved up his engines in Season 85 – when he won Rookie of the Year – before going full throttle and picking up two MVP trophies the next season. Just as Quiambao’s unique skill set defined La Salle’s offense in Season 86, Lopez should be the basis for the Fighting Maroons’ blueprint in Season 87.

Invest in some more shooters

So far, I’ve been very careful to call Lopez by his given name, as per his preference. But I’d be lying if I said that he didn’t remind me of a certain LeBron who won a bunch of titles.

You know how that LeBron amassed rings? His GMs surrounded him with impeccable shooters.

The formula is simple. LeBron James is an insanely athletic specimen who has defenders at his mercy when he’s driving to the rack. Guarding him one-on-one has proven futile on countless occasions, and when defenses collapse to contain his penetration, James invariably finds a wide-open marksman on the weak side.

I know Lopez doesn’t like to be called LeBron, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea if he – along with the Fighting Maroons’ excellent coaching staff – became rather fond of the template set by the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. This framework, of course, only works if reliable shooters are on the perimeter every time Lopez is on the floor.

“Reliable” isn’t the word I’d use to describe UP’s outside shooting in their four losses this past season. Across those games, the Fighting Maroons took 87 shots beyond the arc and made just 14 – a measly 16% shooting clip. Dissect this further, and you’ll see that UP shot 2-for-19 in Game 2 of the Finals, which they then followed up with a 1-for-17 eyesore in Game 3. To address this dire concern, UP needs to both add and unlock more shooters on its roster.

Fortunately, the future is bright for the Diliman-based squad in this regard. Barring any hitches, UP will be fielding acclaimed guard Jared Bahay, whose booming triples recently led Ateneo de Cebu to a third straight Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation Inc title. Bahay would space the floor well alongside Chicco Briones, a pure shooter who showed glimpses of his prowess last season. 

I’m holding out hope that Mark Belmonte, who shocked La Salle and maybe even his own teammates in their 2023 FilOil title win, will tap his vast potential as a stretch forward next year. And if I’m seldom-used big man Seven Gagate, I’m putting in extra work to sharpen my sniping skills, which could be key to finally cracking UP’s loaded rotation.

Investing in these shooters – as well as presumed holdovers Harold Alarcon and Gerry Abadiano – can help UP stabilize its half-court game when its vaunted transition attack is curtailed. Well-prepared outside snipers can open up the floor for UP’s other ball-handlers and frontcourt players (like its main man Lopez) to inflict damage in the paint.

Add size at the wing positions

I actually have another reason to invest in Briones: He’s a 6-foot-6 swingman who’s agile enough to beat defenders off the dribble. With some more polish from the coaching staff (which includes his father Lowell, an MBA and PBA veteran), the Caroll College product can make significant contributions on the defensive end as well.

Briones, in other words, represents what UP needs more of: sizable wings that can possibly hold the fort on both ends of the floor next season.

I’ll admit that it took me seven games into Season 86 to acknowledge this reality: The UP roster had one undersized wing too many. Game No. 7, of course, was the highly anticipated Battle of Katipunan in which Ateneo prevailed, 99-89. In that loss – UP’s first, after going 6-0 in Round 1 – 6-foot-5 wingman Chris Koon had a field day posting up smaller defenders and shooting over them from midrange. 

Size at the two and three positions plagued the Fighting Maroons once again in the finals. For starters, Quiambao was a matchup nightmare who wreaked havoc inside and outside. To add to that, long-limbed Jonnel Policarpio – who evidently suffered from first-time jitters in Game 1 – got comfortable enough in Game 3 to get stops and buckets during crucial stretches.

Before the Green Archers clinched the title in that game, they first had to play for their lives in Game 2. One look at the Game 2 stat sheet tells you exactly how La Salle laid the smackdown on UP: winning the battle of the boards. That game, shooting guard CJ Austria had 5 rebounds, Quiambao contributed 13, and Nelle – that brave 5-foot-11 fellow – logged an eye-popping dozen boards.

Against powerhouses Ateneo and La Salle, the Fighting Maroons are playing with fire every time they field a three-guard lineup. With some roster adjustments here and there, UP can avoid matchup problems that have cost it dearly this past season. But, as with the shooting department, the answer to UP’s size problem might already be in its backyard. 

Waiting in the wings (no pun intended) is slasher Josh Coronel, the former La Salle Green Hills and Batang Gilas stalwart with a wingspan to die for. Also warming up with Team B is Denzil Walker, a versatile 6-foot-4 forward who’s quick on his feet and can play on and off the ball. Both Coronel and Walker can take pointers from Aldous Torculas, UP’s resident pogo stick whose on-ball and weak-side defense took a quantum leap this past season. The troika of Lopez, Torculas, and Walker might just be the UAAP’s best rotation at the small forward position in Season 87.

Make tough roster decisions

I just named three players with a strong case to make UP’s main roster in 2024. So, we’re going there, are we?

Year in and year out, every UAAP team has to undergo this bloody process. While just about all of these teams can put together a talent pool teeming with diamonds in the rough, they all have to reconcile with the fact that their lineup has to be limited to 16 studs.

Whether UP won or lost that Season 86 Finals series, the roster would have been inevitably retooled in order to address recurring flaws. There’s no doubt, though, that the urgency of roster upgrades is exacerbated by the fact that UP had one hand on the UAAP title before collapsing in the last two games. There’s no need to blow up the roster, yes, but changes have to be made to increase the likelihood that UP will get the job all the way done.

Diouf and Cansino are two irrevocable departures, but as for the rest of the lineup, coach Goldwin Monteverde and his brain trust will have to create an ensemble that addresses last season’s crucial weaknesses and anticipates the upgrades of other teams in the league. To achieve this outcome, the coaching staff has to block out all the noise and focus on the future more so than the past. Above all else, they need to value the name of the front of the jersey rather than the one on the back.

With glaring weaknesses like shooting woes and undersized wings, the UP coaching staff will have to add the missing pieces of the puzzle and – perhaps to the chagrin of many, many supporters – cut a number of players who saw action in Season 86. I suppose the seniority card can come into play, as several of the boys have been around since Season 85 and even earlier. I have to note, though, that the Maroons’ edge in Finals and championship experience did not convert to a title win against La Salle just weeks ago.

I am not advocating for any particular player to be axed; even from afar, I can see how much joy the sport of basketball brings to all these young men. But, with as much objectivity I can muster as a UP alumnus and fan, I can’t see a path back to legitimate championship contention without meticulous cuts and upgrades.

In my estimation, these four points cover plenty of ground for UP’s redemption tour in Season 87. I think I’ve said a lot – too much, even – but I can’t help but feel that there’s a piece missing.

After all, the game of basketball isn’t just played on the sacred ground of the hardcourt. It also plays out in the untold depths of the human psyche.

Skill sets, set plays, and roster selections are all concrete adjustments that UP can make, but to truly take the next step, they have to make a tweak that is strictly cerebral.

In other words, a fifth point is in order.

Have the right mindset

All that talk about loaded rosters, championship contention, and dynasties is – to be quite frank –overrated. Rather than let any of that hype get into their mental, the Fighting Maroons of Season 87 should shun all premature rankings, be driven by their hunger, and just play.

Title favorites? In their minds, they should be the favorites of nothing.

Instead of playing next season with the mindset of “we almost had it,” they should live by the mantra of “we never had it.” Longing, not entitlement, should prevail in their hearts. Instead of the certainty of success, the Maroons should be fueled by the reality of failure.

Reality check: UP lost by 4 points in Game 3 of the finals.

Maybe – just maybe – five points can spell the difference and lead to a different outcome next season. – Rappler.com

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