Mapua as top title contender? Not so fast, says Atoy Co

Buoyed by the presence of reigning league MVP Allwell Oraeme and a plethora of dependable guards, Mapua is considered by many as one of the top title contenders in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tourney that gets going this Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The Cardinals made their presence felt as season’s hosts last year when they booked a Final Four trip for the first time since 2010 behind an overachieving squad, bannered by the 6-foot-9 Oraeme, who was also named the Rookie of the Year, and ace wingman Josan Nimes.

Although they have lost Nimes, Andretti Stevens and Mark Braña to graduation aside from solid guard JP Nieles due to an ACL injury, Mapua remains formidable with Oraeme, team captain CJ Isit, guards Exequiel Biteng and Darell Menina, and key returnees Andoy Estrella and Joseph Eriobu, forming a potent core envy of others.

However, incoming fifth-year mentor Atoy Co is trying to tone down the hype around the Cardinals.

“Mahirap sabihin (kung gaano malakas talaga kami). Pero hindi na nila ako pwedeng tambakan,” said the former pro league great with a wry smile, adding they might be even out of the Top 4 in pre-season rankings.

“Swerte na ‘pag nakapasok kami sa Final Four. Balita ko malakas ang Arellano, San Beda, Perpetual, JRU (Jose Rizal U). Pang-lima kami. ‘Pag pumang-apat swerte,” he added.

While Co is trying to keep it low-key, many might disagree with his notion, with a still-improving Oraeme still expected to lead the way on both ends.

“Maganda na ang perimeter shots at foul shooting niya. Lumaki rin ang katawan niya. I hope he has adjusted sa physicality,” said Co of their prized Nigerian import, who averaged 16.33 points, 20.28 rebounds, 2.94 blocks and 1.61 assists last year.

While they could miss the scoring prowess and stability that Nimes usually provides, Co is confident his pair of comebacking Cardinals, notably Estrella could could fill up that role.

“Si Andoy bumabalik. Pwede naman asahan. Mas sumusunod si Andoy na kailangan dumipensa,” he said.

What makes Co beaming these days is the fact that the Cardinals continue to buy into the team’s system.

“Sa tingin ko malakas pa rin kasi mas naiintindihan na nila ‘yung sistema. Nag-sink in na sa kanila na ang basketball team play, hindi lang puro individual plays. Siyempre sa college mayroon kang team offense and team defense. You have to be disciplined in doing these things,” he pointed out.

“Mas nae-embrace na nila, mas naniniwala na sila na as long as we play our system, type of game, we have a better chance of winning games and a good chance of making it to the Final 4. Kung matatalo lang siguro, sa endgame lang. Basta nag-improve rin. Pero mahirap i-assess, mahirap sabihin.”

The Cardinals will start their title campaign against the Heavy Bombers, another strong title contenders, on Saturday at 4 o’clock and Co is hoping their freshmen could overcome the opening-day jitters.

“I have about six rookies. Hopefully, they can handle the pressure. ‘Pag hindi mo kasi maha-handle, medyo mangangapa ka, mawawala ka sa laro,” eh said. – By Jerome Lagunzad

Follow this writer on Twitter: @JLFoxSports

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