A Case of College Basketball Preseason Fever
With both the Filoil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup and the Fr. Martin Cup already in full swing, die-hard fans are once again eating up heavy servings of college hoops. Thanks to their consistency and unwavering mission to showcase the talents of young players, what were once fledgling leagues-with hardly any media coverage and teams wearing dull practice jerseys-have become well-known amateur tournaments. Fans look forward to them every summer as a warm-up for the UAAP and the NCAA. They're a pair of delicious appetizers before the mouth-watering entrées.
What makes the Filoil Cup and the Fr. Martin Cup engaging is they serve as annual avenues for the so-called eyeball test. Who will be good? How will this team adjust with the graduation of Player X? More importantly, will Terrence Romeo finally change his hairstyle? Plus, it's always nice to see old faces back on the court and thrilling to welcome a new breed of players. With more than 30 teams competing, this year's summer leagues are cooking up a sumptuous smorgasbord.
A couple of weeks into the tournaments, the usual suspects have shown they haven't skipped a beat since conquering their mother leagues.
For starters, it seems Ateneo de Manila University isn't suffering from separation anxiety in the post-Norman Black era. As expected, Kiefer Ravena has willingly embraced being the alpha dog and he'll only blossom under new guard-friendly head coach Bo Perasol. Rookie Chris Newsome has also been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Eagles with his tenacity on both ends of the floor. So far, the Fil-Am from New Mexico has filled the big shoes left by Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Justin Chua. Also having a breakout summer is junior Von Pessumal, who is averaging twin digits.
NCAA champion San Beda College is also in the middle of a coaching transition. Just several months after winning the title, head coach Ronnie Magsanoc resigned to spend more time with his family. Now, the Red Lions are trying to adjust to new mentor Boyet Fernandez. But with the way they've been performing, it's clear that they're wasting zero time. With playmaking virtuoso Baser Amer, skipper Rome dela Rosa, and imposing Nigerian Ola Adeogun spearheading the Mendiola charge, a double off-season coronation isn't too far-fetched.
Meanwhile, the reigning runner-ups, University of Santo Tomas (UST) and Letran College, have been solid, to say the least.
The Growling Tigers are continuing their exciting play with the offensive one-two punch of Jeric Teng and Aljon Mariano. Cameroonian import Karim Abdul, who finished second in the UAAP MVP race last season, is looking a little sluggish and disinterested, though, which should be a cause for concern for the boys from España. Another problem nagging UST is its point guard hole with the exit of Jeric Fortuna. It's still unclear who will inherit the vacated minutes with Robin Tan, Ed Daquioag, and Jan Sheriff alternating.
The Knights have carried over their laudable run from NCAA Season 88 despite losing main man Kevin Alas, who opted to forego his final year to focus on his stint with the cadet pool of Gilas Pilipinas. Pint-sized spitfire Mark Cruz is looking confident as ever, knowing that the team is now his responsibility. Thankfully, he's been getting ample support from fellow veterans Raymond Almazan, Jonathan Belorio, and Kevin Racal. The entry of reigning NCAA Juniors MVP Rey Nambatac has also been a huge boost.
Of course, there are also the other contenders. De La Salle University is a stacked squad with Jeron Teng, Norbert Torres, Almond Vosotros, and sturdy rookie Fil-Am Jason Perkins at the helm. National University (NU), anchored by two-time reigning UAAP MVP Ray Parks and a much-improved Troy Rosario, has been on a tear in its first few games. Also, a revamped San Sebastian squad has looked scrappy and dangerous, despite losing half of its production with the graduation of the "Pinatubo Trio" of Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang, and Ronald Pascual.
As mentioned earlier, aside from the teams and the established players, it's a delight to watch the newcomers as well. Summer tournaments give fans the chance to see the greenhorns in action even before they step foot in their mother leagues. Guys like athletic guard Kib Montalbo (La Salle), hulking Cameroonians Alfred Aroga (NU) and Ingrid Sewa (Adamson University), former RP U-16 standout J-Jay Alejandro (NU), Jaymark Perez a.k.a. "Abueva Jr." (San Sebastian), and ex-CESAFI Juniors MVP Paul Desiderio (University of the Philippines) make the games more enticing. The question remains, though: Will Jerie Pingoy suit up for Ateneo?
Then there are the comeback kids. This season, two former NCAA Juniors MVPs finally made their seniors debut after being stuck on the backburner in recent years. Keith Agovida, who once scored 82 points when he was still with Jose Rizal University, bounced from one school to another before landing in Arellano University. Former San Sebastian Staglet Gino Jumao-as also found a home at last, bringing his talents to the University of the East after moving from Baste to Far Eastern University. He and Roi Sumang should form an electrifying backcourt duo.
Several players who were absent last season have also made their comebacks. Mikee Reyes, who sat out the past two seasons due to a shoulder injury, is a much-needed returnee for UP. Fiery guard Franz Dysam is with Letran's Team A anew after being stricken off the roster last year, while "The Prodigal Twins" Anthony and David Semerad are back with San Beda after a failed fling in Loyola.
But just like other off-season tournaments, the Filoil Cup and the Fr. Martin Cup, no matter how competitive they've been in the past few years, still aren't definite gauges of the teams. Ruling one of the leagues doesn't necessarily translate to a crown in the UAAP or the NCAA. In fact, of the Filoil Cup's seven champions, only two squads went to win the crown in their mother league: La Salle in 2007 and Ateneo in 2011.
Eyeball tests aren't always accurate. Some players have the tendency to coast during off-season games. The lower stakes can lead to flashy, selfish play that just won't cut it in the official league. Moreover, some coaches use summer leagues to experiment with lineups and execute risky plays, things they wouldn't normally do. That's why these contests aren't foolproof indicators of a team's true ability.
Nevertheless, off-season wars are a terrific run-up to the UAAP and the NCAA. They are a great way to whet the appetite for another satisfying season of sweet triumphs and agonizing defeats. It's always exciting to see the fast-rising stars of Philippine hoops back where they truly belong: on the court and playing the game they love. But more importantly, fans come out to watch anew and cheer their lungs out, whether it be for their school or their young idols. College basketball fever never really has to go away.