UAAP 78 Preview: NU Bulldogs

“It’s kind of different this year kasi we’re not used to being the hunted. We’re used to being the hunter, so it’s going to be an interesting season for us.” - Eric Altamirano

Critical losses: Troy Rosario, Glenn Khobuntin, Henri Betayene
Vital returnees: Alfred Aroga, Gelo Alolino, J-Jay Alejandro, Nico Javelona
Notable additions: Nico Abatayo, Tzaddy Rangel, Reggie Morido
Head coach: Eric Altamirano
Last title: 2014
Style of play: man-to-man pressure defense, full court press, post-oriented, 3-point shooting
Last season’s record: 9-5 (4th)

MANILA, Philippines – 60 years is a ridiculously long amount of time. Just think of all that can transpire during those 6 decades - people grow old, government regimes change, dynasties in sports come and go. But for National University, that long span must have felt even longer; something like an eternity.

They weren’t supposed to win the UAAP title in 2014. Not when their former two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks had moved on and dominant big man John Mbe was gone. Not when the team’s new starting center, Alfred Aroga, was just a rookie. Not when Gelo Alolino had the keys to the ignition of the Bulldogs for just the first time in his college career.

But they did it, anyway. They beat UE to claim the final spot in the Final Four. They beat Ateneo despite having a twice-to-beat disadvantage. And after they lost Game 1 to the FEU Tamaraws, they came back to win Games 2 and 3 and win their first championship in 60 years.

It was the perfect storybook ending. 

But now, it’s also a thing of the past.

“We’re not thinking about the championship anymore - tapos na yun eh. It’s over and done with,” Bulldogs head coach Eric Altamirano tells Rappler. “This is a new season. We’re trying to make our own history, or story.”

“My mindset is, for us to get back to that stage again, we need to go into the season as underdogs. We need to go into this season as, ‘We’ve never won nothing.’ We need to go back to scratch,” says Aroga.

“Because if we go into this season having in our head, ‘We’re champions,’ like we’re going to go slow, teams are going to be scared cause we’re champions, refs are going to go easy on us cause we’re champions, we’re dead. So we need to act as we never won nothing. We need to be hungry.”

Both player and coach are right. Many basketball greats say, “It’s always harder to defend a championship than it is to win one.” For a chance at a repeat, NU needs to be hungrier. They need to be more resilient. They need to play smarter. They need to be better.

“For us, every game is important when we step on the floor. Any venue, we want to win, remember all the small details, the process,” says Alolino.

Moving on

If National University is serious about repeating as UAAP champions, the first order of business will be to replace the production left void by the departures of Troy Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin. Both guys were key players for the Bulldogs’ title squad last season, and their absence will be felt on both sides off the floor.

“Obviously because of the graduation of our big men, we have a lot of young players this year. So it’s a combination of our veterans, our second year players, and rookies,” says Altamirano.

“Comparatively, we’re a little bit small this season compared to last year, so in that aspect we really need to improve in our rebounding.”

From being one of the biggest teams in the league - don’t forget, even back-up foreign student-athlete Henro Betayene has played all his years as well - to now one of the smallest, the Bulldogs will have to lean even more on Aroga, last season’s Finals MVP.

“Personally, actually, yeah, I have a bit of pressure cause I have a lot of stuff to do actually. I need to really double my effort, cause, actually, like you can see we’re just a small team and I’m the only biggest guy, so I really need to double my effort, like big time,” he says.

Naniniwala kami na these guys naman, from dati mga second unit, ngayon kailangan nila bigger responsibility so, yan, sa practice naman nag i-improve kami as a team, so kami, wala naman kaming duda na mag de-deliver sila and mag ste-step up sila for this season,” says Alolino.

(We believe that these guys, who were from the second unit, they now need bigger responsibilities. During practice, we improve as a team, so for us, we don't have doubts that they'll deliver and step up this season.)

Nico Abatayo and Tzaddy Rangel are two names to watch out for in NU’s rookies. Stars in high school, they now face bigger responsibilities in college basketball, with the kind of spotlight above their heads brought about only by playing for the defending champions.

“I don’t expect them to really contribute a lot this season but since we’re a small team we really need Tzaddy’s rebounding, and at least him defending the big men of the other teams,” says Altamirano.

“Nico and the other players like Kevin who came from our Team B, they will help us deepen our bench this season.”

But the new rookies, and how fast they can get used to the system NU hopes to run, is only one of the challenges. It’s common among some defending championship teams to come into the next year lackadaisical or complacent. National University can’t skip a beat, not with the target now on their backs; not when they’re now the prey instead of the predator.

“It’s kind of different this year kasi (because) we’re not used to being the hunted,” admits Altamirano. “We’re used to being the hunter, so it’s going to be an interesting season for us. It’s something new, but again we have to embrace the position that we are in. Not everybody is fortunate enough to be in our position. But again, we want to be cautious, we want to be on our toes, since all the teams would want to beat us.”

Siguro (maybe) for the last 3, 4 years, we’re striving to get the title. This year, it’s different; kami yung defending champions (we're the defending champions), but like Coach Eric is saying always sa practice, walang (no) sense of entitlement,” says Alolino.

“Stay hungry. Kung mas maganda (even better), stay hungrier than last year, so yun, keep lang the winning attitude, every day, every practice.”

However, just because the Bulldogs are aware 7 other teams are coming for their throne, it doesn’t make the obstacles ahead of them any easier to overcome.

Both Ateneo and DLSU are coming in with a fresh crop of rookies, but everyone knows those two teams are always in the title hunt. UST is considered a dark horse underdog with a veteran core that can compete with anyone. FEU’s main guns are returning, with a few new players - including a new, 6-foot-10 import in Prince Orizu - that are bigger and better. 

“Some played in the FilOil, some teams did not, so we were not really able to see them enough to be able to size them up, and then also, FilOil was two or 3 months ago, so a lot of things I’m sure have changed in the lineups, in how they’re going to play, so it’s really hard to size them up,” says Altamirano, whose team captain stressed the threat each rival brings.

“For me, I’ll go for last year’s Final Four - there’s La Salle, FEU, Ateneo, pero syempre (but of course) like UST - lakas pa nang core nila (their core is still strong), more of the veterans nanduon - UE, coming in new guys, new system, and then we cannot count out like Adamson and UP - nakita naman namin nag-beef up sila, nagpalakas sila,” he says.

(We saw they beefed up and got stronger.)

“This year talagang (it's really a) very competitive, unpredictable season, any team can beat any team.”

Which is why it’s probably a good thing that Aroga, often times the Bulldogs’ vocal leader on the floor, has the type of mindset the team’s fans can be comfortable with as NU is about to start their campaign against La Salle on Sunday, September 6.

“In this UAAP, there’s no team I underestimate. There’s every single team is a threat. Like, you see there are new rotations, there are new faces. Last year, you could never imagine that NU could get there. So, I respect all the teams.”

The question Aroga and company will face over the next few months is this: will they repeat as champions?

So far, that’s not yet on their minds.

“It’s hard to say. We’re not looking that far ahead right now. We’re trying to focus on improving, getting better, as a team, and hopefully being a better team than last season,” says Altamirano.

“I’m pretty sure that we know what it takes to be champions,” says Aroga, “so we’re going to give our best. That’s for sure.”

Alolino shares the same sentiment, and also adds this:

Kung last year mahirap (if last year was hard), this year it’s going to be harder.

– Rappler.com

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