by Lawrence Andrew Fernandez
For years, the UP Fighting Maroons have been tagged with consolation monikers such as “next year’s champions” or “lovable losers.”
But entering a new season of the UAAP, these tags could vanish, thanks to a deep roster bolstered by former MVPs, transferees, and Gilas cadets. For the first time in over three decades, the Diliman-based crew will be parading as new favorites to enter the Final Four and a dark horse for the championship.
With a pool of talented holdovers and acquisition of prized recruits, the Maroons often draw comparisons to the legendary UP squad that won the 1986 UAAP senior men’s basketball title over the UE Red Warriors — its last championship ever.
How do they fare player by player? Does the current squad have what it takes to end the long and dry road for Diliman?
Sizing up the back court
None of the current UP point guards are at par with the greatness of Ronnie Magsanoc in terms of orchestrating plays and shooting the basketball. Likewise, Eric Altamirano is a defensive specialist who can also take over in scoring as proven by his 27 points in Game One of the 1986 Finals against UE.
Jun Manzo and Diego Dario are more of slashers and their perimeter jumpers are subject to question. Manzo is also a better defender but is not quite in the level of the former National University head coach. In terms of pace, the former University of the Visayas standout has the advantage for he has the speed to leave his defenders.
But in the shooting guard position, this is where the modern turks gain an advantage. Paul Desiderio is just a big time scorer and clutch performer. Add to that former UAAP Juniors MVP Juan Gomez De Liano who is equally explosive especially when coming off screens. When Desiderio graduates, hotshot Ricci Rivero will assume his position so there’s no decrease in talent. This level of firepower in the two spot is something that the ’86 squad cannot match.
Measuring the front court
It would take a championship before we can put Bright Akhuetie at par with Benjie Paras the Maroon. But there’s no question that they can both dominate the glass and score close to the basket. However, former NCAA Juniors MVP Will Gozum boosts the center rotation of Coach Bo Perasol’s squad for he can give the same production while giving the transferee Nigerian some rest. Gozum and Akhuetie give UP somebody they’ve never had in a long while: a legitimate scoring threat in the paint.
Meanwhile, it would be hard to compare Joey Mendoza and Javi Gomez De Liano for the former is the typical bruising power forward who can switch to the center position while the latter is a stretch four who can play small forward when the Maroons go big. Mendoza is a more tenacious competitor for rebounds while Gomez De Liano is more comfortable playing outside. It remains to be seen how David Murrell will fare in the UAAP while Gelo Vito is a rotation player at best.
Not to be forgotten in the Maroons stockpile of talent is former UAAP Juniors Mythical Five member Jaydee Tungcab who sat out season 80 due to his transfer from Adamson. The versatile forward will share minutes with Evyn Santiago. Again, it would be difficult to compare Tungcab’s game with Joey Guanio for the PBA veteran is more confined to knocking down outside baskets while the former Falcon’s cup of tea is slashing through the lanes. However, the versatility of Tungcab gives him a slight advantage. The jury is still out whether Santiago will be at par with the late Ramil Cruz who brought UP to the ’86 Finals via a game-winning lay-up off a steal in a knock-out match against FEU.
How will UP fare in UAAP Season 81?
With the firepower that the present line-up has, can they clinch the university’s first Final Four berth in over two decades? Or better yet, will they finally clinch Diliman’s first UAAP title in 32 years?
The other universities have done their part to improve their chances as well. De La Salle will be parading their triple towers in Taane Samuel, Justine Baltazar, and Brandon Bates. Ateneo still has a formidable roster that has been fortified by 6-foot-10 Kakou Kouame and the returning Adrian Wong.
Meanwhile, National University has also reloaded with the Ildefonso brothers plus Matthew Aquino and Issa Gaye. FEU is still bannered by its reliable core of Arvin Tolentino, Richard Escoto, Prince Orizu, Hubert Cani, and Jasper Parker. Not to be forgotten is Adamson with Jerie Pingoy, Sean Manganti, Jerrick Ahanmisi, and Pape Sarr. UST is also gaining ground with the addition of juniors MVPs CJ Cansino and Mike Enriquez, while UE will parade a gritty squad headed by Jason Varilla, Mark Maloles, and Paul Manalang.
If UP will hoist the crown in Season 81, they will be in for a dog fight in all of the games come eliminations. The same is true during the Final Four for the games are tougher and the stakes are higher. Therefore, they should feed off the energy of their crowd and keep the intensity high on both sides of the floor until victory is guaranteed.
It is also concerning that UP will be coming in to the season as favorites, something they are not accustomed to. What helped them garner six wins last season is that chip in their shoulder to prove doubters wrong. How will they adjust to the lofty expectations that their supporters bestow on them?
Provided that they have a stacked roster that can hurt opponents inside and out, anything less than a Final Four appearance would be a disappointment.
But if that goal will not be fulfilled next year, they continue to be contenders for at least three years by just keeping the core that they have. This window is the best opportunity that they will have in hoisting the next championship trophy for State U.