On UP and college basketball: Something special happening
MANILA, Philippines – From a general view of things, it looks like the Ateneo Blue Eagles won the UAAP offseason with their successful outing in Greece, going undefeated on the way to winning the Filoil preseason tournament title, reigning supreme in the Breakdown Basketball Invitational, and being chosen to represent the Philippines in the upcoming Jones Cup.
But you can also make the case this summer has belonged to the University of the Philippines basketball program, which despite not making the UAAP Final Four round since 1997, has already established itself as one of the title contenders of the collegiate sports league for the years to come.
Boasting of a young, talented roster that includes the likes of Jun Manzo, the Gomez De Liaño brothers, and Bright Akhuetie, UP spent the past few months adding to that collection of blue-chip recruits by securing commitments from Will Gozum, John Gob, Ricci Rivero, and most recently, Kobe Paras.
Imagining the different kind of lineups UP head coach Bo Perasol can field in the upcoming years should give fans of the Maroons reason to be beyond excited. On paper, this team has all the makings of a roster capable of winning multiple championships – even as veteran scorer Paul Desiderio moves on from the collegiate ranks after the 2018 season.
There’s another aspect that stands out when reviewing UP’s suddenly-stacked line-up that resembles that of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, or of the Kentucky Wildcats in the United States’ version of the NCAA.
Gomez De Liaño (Juan), Gozum, Rivero, and Paras are all part of the Gilas cadets pool that have trained together since the start of the year and competed in the Filoil tournament against other collegiate squads. Before that under-23 training roster was assembled, only Gomez De Liaño – the UAAP’s reigning Rookie of the Year – was committed to University of the Philippines. Then, like falling dominoes, the rest followed.
It’s no secret that the big names of Philippine basketball grow familiar with each other from a young age. It’s not only in college or in the pros when these guys get to know one another or how they like to play. A lot of these standouts start competing with each other in high school, and quite a number of them end up becoming good friends – especially when they get together to represent the country in international competition.
Gozum, who was the MVP of the NCAA juniors division last year with Mapua, has admitted that his friendship with the Gomez De Liaño brothers played a big factor in his return to the University of the Philippines. With Rivero, who was courted by suitors after word got out that he was leaving De La Salle University, Juan didn’t waste time stepping on the recruitment gas pedal to convince him that his next step was to join the Maroons.
“I’ve been talking to him (Rivero) ever since [he left],” Juan told Rappler back in May. “Like during practice, I’d tell him, ‘Bro, solid spot mo (your spot would be solid). By the time you play [at UP], it will be you, me, Javi [Gomez De Liaño], Will [Gozum], and Bright [Akhuetie].’ I was [also] just telling him about academics, about UP, and how chill it is.”
After Rivero’s shocking decision to move to Katipunan, players of UP didn’t waste time making it known on social media that they were excited at the thought of the recently-returned Paras to follow the footsteps of his father, Benjie, and play his Philippine collegiate career with the Maroons as well.
It’s also perfectly safe to assume that during Gilas practices, Ricci, Juan, and Will made it known to Kobe how excited they were at the thought of playing UAAP basketball together – specifically, what the collection of guys oozing with potential can accomplish as one unit, especially with a foreign recruit like Bright Akhuetie manning the paint.
"I look forward to the challenge of helping make the Fighting Maroons a better basketball team, and the challenge of helping myself become a better student," said Paras in a statement once it was announced he was moving to UP.
He later on tweeted:
“I’m not here to chase any ghost. I’m here to enjoy my life and create my own wave.”
What the younger Paras is referring to, of course, is that he’s not trying to replicate the college career of Benjie, who aside from being the only player in PBA history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, also led the Maroons to their last UAAP championship back in 1986.
Of course, many were quick to point out that the recent increase of sponsors backing the UP basketball program contributes a great deal to how the team has suddenly been able to recruit big-name players which would have been impossible just a handful of years ago. Guess what? It’s right.
This isn’t the United States. Money absolutely plays a large factor when it comes to collegiate programs recruiting the best players out of high school. Ateneo, La Salle, and NU wouldn’t have championships in recent years if they didn’t have the sources to gather the best compilation of talent. It isn’t fair to chastise UP for relying on the contributions of companies like Robinson’s, Handyman, 3M, and nxLED to better its fortunes.
Craving for legitimacy
But another trend is starting to ascend. While the Blue Eagles and Green Archers still remain the favorites when it comes to recruitment, programs like those of the Bulldogs, Maroons, and even the Adamson Falcons are catching up. High School standouts and college transfers feel more empowered, and with that comes the ability for them to choose to play alongside their buddies.
Is it because of social media? Is it because they watch their idols in the NBA take matters into their own hands rather than relying on general managers? Is it because of the advice of their sports agents?
Most likely, it’s a mix of everything.
But that’s not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it might be quite the opposite. Way too many times in the past have the talents of future basketball stars been exploited by schools and managers, so giving these kids the opportunity to think and decide for themselves is a step towards a right direction.
As long as they know their education must remain the top priority – “student” comes before “athlete” in the word student-athlete, after all – these kids should have the liberty to carve the paths for their own futures.
We’re seeing it take place at UP, and in turn, a starved basketball program craving for legitimacy is on the cusp of becoming one of the most feared collegiate squads in the Philippines.
Bright Akhuetie. Juan Gomez De Liaño. Javi Gomez De Liaño. Jun Manzo. Will Gozum. Ricci Rivero.
Once upon a time not too long ago, UP winning one game in two years was worth having a bonfire celebration over.
Today, it would be considered a shame if the Maroons don’t win a UAAP championship sooner rather than later. – Rappler.com