What difference a year makes.
Unlike last year, Letran will carry a big target on its back as the defending champion in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tournament that gets going on June 25 at the Mall of Asia Arena, with nine other schools, including archrival San Beda, out to foil the Knights.
Wingman Rey Nambatac knows they will be hard-pressed to defend the crown but he is relishing the challenge of validating their big accomplishment with the help of new Letran coach Jeff Napa and host of battle-tested Knights.
“Ngayon lang ulit bumango ‘yung pangalan ng Letran dahil kami nga ang defending champion. Para sa amin magandang motivation ‘yun,” Nambatac, 22, told FOX Sports on Thursday at the end of Letran’s four-point defeat dealt by reigning UAAP champion Far Eastern U in their tuneup match.
“Kumbaga ‘Okay guys, hindi na tayo pinag-iisipan na mahina tayo. ‘Yung ibang teams tini-treat na tayo as a contender kasi na-prove na natin sa kanila that we don’t need a big man para mag-champion.’ Magandang motivation sa amin ‘yun.”
With the graduation of cerebral playmaker Mark Cruz and forward Kevin Racal, who are now plying their trade in the pro ranks, the 6-foot-1 Nambatac is expected to play a bigger role not just on both ends but also in becoming as one of the team’s leaders.
And the Cagayan de Oro native is already bracing for that tough challenge.
“Malaking responsibilidad yun kasi as a leader, ikaw ang titignan ng mga kasama mo. At ako naman bilang isa sa leaders ng team, kailangan maging maganda ang ipakita ko sa court—sa akin kasi sila nakatingin, sa akin sila nakabase. Kaya kung ano ‘yung gagawin ko sa loob ng court, ‘yun ang gagayahin nila. As much as possible, dapat maging maganda ang lalaruin ko,” he said.
Napa, 35, is hoping Nambatac and Mc Jour Luib, the team’s skipper, could provide the leadership that Cruz and Racal gave last year during their impressive title run under Aldin Ayo, who’s now with UAAP powerhouse La Salle.
“Siya ang leader ng team na to. I expect na magiging malaki ang role niya. Alam naman niya yung hinihingi ko sa kanya. Medyo mabigat kasi defense at offense ang lalaruin niya tapos ‘yung leadership. Kung ano yung ginawa nila Mark Cruz at K-Racs, silang dalawa ni McJour ang hinahanap kong maging leader ng team na ‘to,” said the former National U Bullpups mentor.
Now on his fourth year with the team, Nambatac is already setting his sights on reaching the same destination. But he knows it’s easier said than done.
“Defend our crown—makapag Final Four ulit. Makapag-finals. Makapag champion ulit. Pero bago mangyari ‘yun, kailangan pagtrabahuhan muna namin,” he said.
Although they have only started practicing with Napa in early March, Nambatac admitted he and the rest of the Knights are all set to do battle.
“Ready na kami ngayong Season 92. Nakita ko naman nung past few practices namin, solid na. ‘Yung competition namin sa bawat isa talagang 100 percent na. Hopefully maging maganda ang takbuhin ng team namin, katulad nu’ng nangyari last year,” he concluded. – By Jerome Lagunzad
Follow this writer on Twitter: @JLFoxSports