UAAP Season 79: 10 Players to Watch

Who are the up-and-coming players to watch in UAAP Season 79?

The curtains will soon be raised on the 79th season of the UAAP, which will open on Saturday, September 3 at the University of Sto. Tomas campus and have its first set of men’s basketball games on Sunday, September 4, at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum. A lot of the focus is on defending champion FEU, which will be without much of the core that fueled their successful title drive last year, and De Las Salle, which has been running roughshod over any and all opposition in the preseason. Of course, perennially stacked teams like NU, Ateneo, and host UST will also be in the Final Four mix, while upstarts Adamson, UP, and UE will try to defy the oddsmakers.

For Season 79, both familiar and fresh sets of collegiate players are raring to rise through the ranks and be among the UAAP’s elite. Some are grizzled veterans on their last campaigns, while some are newcomers out to take the league by storm. Let’s take a look at some of the players on whom to keep tabs for this coming season.

*All available stats are from the Elimination Round of UAAP Season 78 unless otherwise specified. Ages are based on online sources only, and may not be completely accurate.

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Jeron Teng (DLSU)
Age: 22
Height: 6’2
Position: Forward
UAAP S78 Stats: 18.3ppg, 6.6rpg, 3.6apg, 41.1 FG%.
– I am pencilling Teng in as this year’s MVP favorite. He will be the best (local) player on the UAAP’s best team, and his being part of the Mythical Five by season’s end should be a sure thing sans any injuries or controversies. He has matured into a capable leader and decision-maker for the Green Archers, and he will be the team’s arrowhead as they try to capture their ninth men’s basketball crown. Having said that, DLSU fans will probably still cringe when he takes threes and free throws.

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Ben Mbala (DLSU)
Age: 22
Height: 6’8
Position: Center
– The league and its fans have been waiting for Ben Mbala ever since he exploded onto mainstream basketball consciousness as part of the Southwestern University Cobras in 2012 and committed to the De La Salle Green Archers not long after. He has been pretty much unstoppable for DLSU, and there are hardly any signs that any team or player can slow him down this coming season. The only thing that can potentially hold him back from putting up a daily double-double is, well, if coach Aldin Ayo sits him out during blowouts.

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Monbert Arong (FEU)
Age: 22
Height: 5’11
Position: Shooting Guard
UAAP S78 Stats: 6.4ppg, 3.1rpg, 28.9 FG%
– Arong is a former teammate of Mbala’s from their SWU days, and it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll mix things up in the UAAP. With a slew of veterans playing out their eligibility, FEU will bank heavily on Arong’s speed, scoring, leadership, and championship experience (he has won titles in both the CESAFI and UAAP) as they try to remain among the league’s elite squads. Expect Arong to be the Tamaraws’ top offensive option early, late, and often.

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Ken Holmqvist (FEU)
Age: 22
Height: 6’8
Position: Center
– Let’s see — Holmqvist won MVP honors in the 2015 PCCL, was named to the Gilas Cadets pool early in 2016, and is pretty much set to be one of the core players for coach Nash Racela in Season 79. This Fil-Norwegian kid has the trimmings of a star-in-the-making. I find it difficult to imagine him flourishing alongside both Arong and fellow big man Prince Orizu because having both slotmen on the floor will severely slow FEU’s pace, but, heck, I’d be shocked if we didn’t see a significant rise in Holmqvist’s minutes, touches, and, ultimately, production this season. He won’t win MVP, but he will certainly create a big ripple in the box for the Morayta-based Tamaraws.

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JV Gallego (NU)
Age: 18
Height: 5’10
Position: Combo Guard
– It’s been a bit of time coming, but we’ll finally see JV Gallego strut his stuff under the bright lights of the UAAP. Gallego has been some sort of a high school by-word the past few years, dominating the numerous Chinese-Filipino leagues for Chiang Kai Shek before committing to NU for college. He sat out last season to further improve his game and conditioning in the (United) States alongside another NU recruit (6’7 Tzaddy Rangel), and then resurfaced as a star for Batang Gilas in the 2016 FIBA Asia U18 Championship. Now, he’s more than ready to take the stage and bask in the spotlight as a bonafide Bulldog. He could be a Rookie of the Year sleeper right here.

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Thirdy Ravena (AdMU)
Age: 19
Height: 6’2
Position: Guard-Forward
UAAP S77 Stats: 1.4ppg, 1.5rpg, 32.0 FG%.
– Yes, Kiefer may have gone on to other endeavors, but another Ravena returns to the fold after sitting out Season 78. Thirdy Ravena is set to be among the Blue Eagles’ leaders this year even if it’s just his second tour of duty in the Seniors’ division. The younger Ravena is hoping he can bring his A-game this time around after he had a bit of a ho-hum rookie year in Season 77. He brings with him a lot of athleticism and swagger, though it remains to be seen if his outside shooting and decision-making have progressed to the next level. He isn’t expected to be a world-beater this year, but he should be a solid wingman for a very solid team.

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Louie Vigil (UST)
Age: 24
Height: 6’3
Position: Guard-Forward
– Vigil’s swan song is expected to be his finest work, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a Final Four berth, much less a championship, for the Growling Tigers. Still, Vigil and his teammates are the sort who thrive under the weight of tempered expectations, so it would be folly to look past them. Vigil has a pro-ready skill-set that, when maximized in tandem with his ideal wingman size, can make him the second coming of, say, Allein Maliksi. Okay, fine, maybe I’m stretching it, but the fact of the matter is this is Vigil’s team to lead, he has the tools to be very effective, and we’ll all be watching very intently.

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Jerrick Ahanmisi (AdU)
Age: 18
Height: 6’1
Position: Combo Guard
– Ahanmisi will be a fan favorite in Adamson and will be among the rising stars of this league for years to come. If he’s anything like his kuya, then the UAAP better watch out because Jerrick may just have the chops to take over any given contest. Over the summer and preseason, he has shown a knack for fearlessness on offense and tenacity on defense. Rookie of the Year material? You bet, and, perhaps, a threat to Jeron Teng in the overall statistical points race, too, if the Falcons can get upwards of five wins.

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Kyles Lao (UP)
Age: 20
Height: 5’11
Position: Guard
– Like Thirdy, Kyles is raring to return to the UAAP, and, like Thirdy as well, Kyles is expected to take on a big role. With Jett Manuel on the homestretch of his collegiate career, the onus is on Lao to be among those who will inherit the mantle of Isko leadership in Diliman. It’ll be interesting to see if Lao still has the same spring in his step from a couple of seasons ago, and whether he can reacquaint himself fast enough to the pace and physicality of the UAAP. If he can seamlessly reintegrate himself into the Fighting Maroons’ roster and system, though, then watch out. UP may have a sleeper star in their midst.

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Wilson Bartolome (UE)
Age: 21
Height: 6’7
Position: Center
– To be quite honest, I’m not even sure if Bartolome is going to be a main rotation player for UE, but I’ve been waiting for this 6’7 beanpole to reach the UAAP ever since I first saw him play for Chiang Kai Shek in 2012. He got recruited by NU, toiled in their Team B for a couple of years, and then finally found his way to Recto. Now, we’ll finally get to see if this one-time rebounding and shot-blocking monster from the Tiong Lian and PSSBC leagues can be an impact player for the Red Warriors. I don’t think he will supplant RR De Leon up front, but having a 6’7 kid waiting in the wings never hurt anyone, right? – By Enzo Flojo

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