UAAP 78 Preview: FEU Tamaraws

We always wanted to be identified as the team who is really resilient, na kahit anong sitwasyon sa game laban lang ng laban. And I think that’s one characteristic of the tamaraw.– Nash Racela 

Critical losses: Carl Bryan Cruz, Anthony Hargrove
Vital returnees: Mike Tolomia, Mac Belo, Roger Pogoy, Russel Escoto
Notable additions: Prinze Orizu, Monbert Arong, Wendell Comboy, Jojo Trinidad
Head coach: Nash Racela
Last title: 2005
Style of play: Running game, improved halfcourt execution
Last season’s record: 10-4 (1st runner-up) 

MANILA, Philippines – Far Eastern University was adamant about staying under the radar for the past two years. For Season 78, following a solid run to the Finals a year ago, the Tamaraws are still tempering expectations. But there will be a sense of acceptance for their contender tag. 

“All teams will say to win games, get to the Final Four and eventually maybe championship,” head coach Nash Racela said of the team’s end goal this season.  

“I’d like to say the same thing. But – and I’ve been like that the last two years – this year we’ll start embracing it. The challenge of getting to the Finals and winning it all the way. It’s the biggest challenge but we’ll do our best.”

The Tamaraws are entering Season 78 with a renewed fervor to claim their first men’s basketball title in a decade after as close as a win away last year. FEU lost to National University in Game 3 as the Bulldogs claimed its first championship in 60 years. 

The pain of defeat is something Racela and his tougher, learned, and more determined team is using to fuel them to go all the way.

“Everything started when we lost the game. Right away we told them to remember the feeling of losing in the Finals and let’s use that as motivation going into the following season,” Racela explained. 

“At least mentally we were aware of how it felt to lose because it was really painful especially for them. Some people cried. They felt we were almost there, one game short of winning a championship. It was a bit elusive for us, but now, they know what it takes to maybe finally win it.”

Hungrier veterans at the helm 

The remaining veterans in the Tamaraws’ line-up have experienced the heartache of that loss, including mainstays Mike Tolomia and Mac Belo.

Both veterans playing on their final year want nothing more than to win the championship. 

Dahil doon sa nangyari sa amin last year, ginawa namin motivation yun. Talagang nagtutulungan kami especially in practice (Because of what happened to us last year, we made that a motivation. We help each other in practice),” said 6-foot-4 forward Belo, who is gradually expanding his game out to the perimeter. 

Evidence of how lethal he can get from the outside can be seen in his game-winning 3-pointer against De La Salle in the Final Four last season – the shot catapulted FEU to the Finals. He has since put in more work on his range and precision, especially with an extended offseason. 

Last year kasi 4 yung nilalaro ko talaga. Ngayon iniba ni coach, ginawa niya akong tres. Lagi ko na lang wino-work, especially sa defense. Kasi karamihan ng tres shooter so doon ko fino-focus sarili ko,” the 22-year old team captain explained.

(Last year I played the 4. Now coach changed it and made me a 3. I always work on it, especially on defense. Most 3 players are shooters so I need to focus on that.)

Malaking challenge pero ina-accept ko naman e kasi alam ko naman na para din sa akin. Mas gusto ko nga yung nacha-challenge ako kasi doon ako mai-improve e.” 

(It's a big challenge but I accept it because I know it's for me. I like that I get challenged because it's a way that I can improve my game.) 

Tolomia, on the other hand, is also making the switch from shooting guard to point guard. Racela intends for him to better himself as a creator and orchestrator on the floor, especially as the 22-year old makes his transition to the PBA.

Sa una mahirap kasi minsan nakakalimutan ko na point guard pala ako or na shooting guard ako,” Tolomia admitted. “Sobrang hirap nung adjustment ko lalo nung offseason sa FilOil. Mahirap. Nakikinig na lang ako kay coach Nash.” 

(At first it was hard because I keep forgetting of I’m a point guard or a shooting guard. It was a very difficult adjustment especially in the offseason during the FilOil tournament. It was tough. But I just listen to coach Nash.) 

Belo and Tolomia will be the key players anchoring the Tamaraws’ charge this year. The rest of the team will look to them to bail them out and lead them in each victory and defeat. 

Beefier supporting cast

FEU will have 7 rookies to shore up its roster this year. Their depth has been Racela’s perpetual problem for the past two years but this season, it seems he will have more options from the bench. 

Nigerian Prinze Orizu will fill in the center spot left behind by Anthony Hargrove for the Tamaraws. The 21-year old 6-foot-10 behemoth moved to the Philippines in February 2012 and his job is to work the boards and provided intimidation on defense.

“Prince is a young kid. He’s learning the game so I think compared to the other imports, the others are more mature,” Racela said of Orizu. “He’s a really big upside. He’s big. The only expectation we have from him this year is really defend, intimidate, get rebounds and neutralize the other bigs.” 

Rookie guards Wendell Comboy and Jojo Trinidad are expected to stabilize the team on the floor and help main guards Tolomia and Achie Iñigo get some rest. 

Comboy is an 18-year old fresh out of FEU’s high school team. During this offseason, he is usually the first and last player out of the gym at the school’s Diliman campus.

“Comboy is the only kid out of high school,” Racela said before giving out his own bold prediction on Comboy’s potential future. “He’s a good player. Could be another Mike Tolomia but he’s young. He needs to mature.” 

Trinidad is a Filipino American out of Loara High School in Anaheim, California. The 22-year old 5-foot-10 playmaker was born and raised in the Philippines before migrating to Anaheim when he was 5 years old. Racela has high hopes for him too.

“We’re hoping he helps us have stability. He could make outside shots, that’s one of his strengths,” he said. 

Meanwhile, shooting guard Monbert Arong was recruited from Southwestern University after Racela saw him play in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League two years ago. He has more experience under his belt having played in the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation Inc. The 5-foot-11 marksman has two playing years left, including Season 78. 

“I hope he brings his game from Cebu,” Racela said. “He’s a really a guy who could shooter from the outside. He’s one of the better shooters that we have.”

Aside from a promising big men and guards, Racela is also developing two Fil-Norwegian players in brothers Ken and Steve Sagulo-Holimouist. The younger Ken is a 6-foot-8 big man the Tamaraws hope can help them down the road after spending more time with the program. Ken has only been training with the team for two months after healing a shoulder injury.

Steve is a more mature swingman Racela hopes can give Roger Pogoy and Belo some rest during games.

The timing and circumstances are different now for FEU. They had a different, more focused offseason where they played 3 tune-up games against PBA teams and other games against a national team from Malaysia and a college team from Korea. They also saw action versus a selection from the US on top of a FilOil preseason appearance. 

Racela explained the team put emphasis on developing and training the pieces they have.

But more than development, this Tamaraws squad has had a spurt of growth not only in confidence but in chemistry. That stronger bond is the very edge Racela sees as they embark on a new season. 

“I haven’t seen this team this together the past two years. I think maganda yung relationship na na-build namin over the years and I think that should be something na makakatulong sa amin,” he said. 

“We always wanted to be identified as the team who is really resilient, na kahit anong sitwasyon sa game laban lang ng laban (that whatever situation in the game we will keep on fighting). And I think that’s one characteristic of the tamaraw,” Racela said. 

Sinasabi nila sa amin ang tamaraw daw tahimik pero pag ginulo mo, prinovoke mo, talagang lalaban daw yan. I think yun yung gusto namin ma-identify kami. Kumbaga silent type, tahimik, hindi mayabang. Pero pag pinrovoke, laban lang ng laban.” 

(They tell us that a tamaraw is quiet but if you provoke it, it will fight back. I think that’s how we want to be identified. A team that’s silent, quiet, humble. But when provoked, we will hit back hard.) 

Can FEU finally bring home the trophy this year?

– Rappler.com

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