With the return of its vital cogs, led by star wingman Jeron Teng and the addition of highly-touted Cameroon big man Ben Mbala, powerhouse La Salle has been tagged as the odds-on favorites in the UAAP Season 79 men’s basketball tournament that gets going on Sunday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
After missing out the Final Four trip and finishing fifth overall last year under one-time league champion coach Juno Sauler, the Green Archers made a coup in the off-season when they lured promising mentor Aldin Ayo from reigning NCAA titleholder Letran.
The Green Archers also reloaded with a formidable lineup that’s expected to be the yardstick of seven other competing schools, including reigning titlist Far Eastern U.
And on Tuesday, during the league’s press launch held at Novotel in Araneta Center, Quezon City, six competing coaches, except for Ayo and University of the East mentor Derrick Pumaren who failed to show up as he’s under weather, unanimously acknowledged that La Salle is this year’s team-to-beat.
2 p.m. — UP vs. Adamson (M)
4 p.m. — UST vs. Ateneo (M)
(Mall of Asia Arena)
2 p.m. — NU vs. UE (M)
4 p.m. — La Salle vs. FEU (M)
“If you make a survey, I think the runaway number 1 seed is La Salle,” said Adamson’s new coach Franz Pumaren, who steered the Green Archers to five men’s cage titles, highlighted by a ‘four-peat’ romp from 1998 to 2001, and is one of five new mentors on the sidelines this season.
“The number 2, 3, 4 (teams), it depended on how you look at it. I think the first 2 to 3 playing dates, you’ll see the clear picture,” added Pumaren, who will make his much-awaited UAAP return against University of the Philippines, now handled by Bo Perasol, on Sunday at the Big Dome.
Aside from the 6-foot-7 Mbala, a former NBA Basketball Without Borders MVP, and Teng, a three-time Mythical Team member, the Green Archers will come in with a potent crew that is the envy of many, which includes veterans Jason Perkins, Abu Tratter, guards Thomas Torres, Andrei Caracut, comebacking Kib Montalbo and Gilas cadet member Prince Rivero.
Stressing that “pressure is inevitable,” Ayo vowed he will squeeze the best from his wards.
“There are lots of expectations on our team but our goal is to really work hard on our practices and during games. Ibibigay na namin ang lahat kung ano man ang makakaya namin,” he said.
Ayo returned the favor to FEU counterpart Nash Racela, considering the Tamaraws as the team-to-beat “because they’re the defending champions” despite losing six key players including their ‘Big 3’ of Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia and Roger Pogoy due to graduation.
“Adamson, NU, those teams (are top contenders),” added Ayo, who will make his UAAP debut with the Green Archers against Racela and the Tamaraws on September 7 in what promises to be an explosive encounter at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Racela promised the Tamaraws, despite a new-look roster, will give their all on their title-retention bid.
“We have a very different team this year. We just promise to give our best in trying to be competitive this year,” he said.
NU’s Eric Altamirano, now the longest-tenured among the league’s coaches, sounded eager to take on the new challenge.
“A lot of new faces, new players and even coaches. It’s going to be a new challenge for us. If there’s a new challenge, that also means a new opportunity,” he said.
Under the theme ‘Dare to Dream,” the league’s new season will officially unfold with an Olympics-inspired opening ceremonies on Saturday, September 3, at the UST main ground.
“It will be a very simple opening ceremonies at UST,” said Fr. Emerito de Sagon of host UST. “We have chosen to be very simple on account of convergence of so many different events.
“We hope this year, we set new standards. We take on taking pride that we’re the number 1 league. But we want to do as a league, we want to benchmark on transparency and accountability on raising our sports standards to a higher level,” he added.
De Sagon also added teams that will sweep the double-round of eliminations will earn an outright berth to the finals and will figure in a best-of-three titular showdown instead of holding a thrice-to-beat advantage. – By Jerome Lagunzad
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