Who’s out: Chris Javier, Fran Yu, Jason Varilla, Jordan Sta. Ana, Joshua Gonzales, Steven Cudal
Who’s back: Bonbon Batiller, Paul Varilla, Clark Derige, Edgar Charcos, RR De Leon, Nick Abanto, Philip Manalang, Shannon Gagate, Ralph Penuela, Emil Palma, Mark Olayon (missed S78)
Who’s new: Rey Acuño, Andrey Armenion, Wilson Bartolome, Omar Larupay, Alvin Pasao
Season 78 Record & Finish: 6-8, 6th place
2016 Filoil Record & Finish: 3-4, 5th place in Group B
What should work in S79:
With just five departures and one returning veteran in former RP-Youth player Mark Olayon, UE actually has one of the most intact and experienced cores for S79, and coupling that with the prowess of “Manong” Derek Pumaren makes for a very intriguing team that could prove to be a bona fide Final Four squad. That, of course, is hinged on one critical assumption — that these Red Warriors have matured enough to be more than mere foils to the true contenders.
At the center of it all is Bonbon Batiller, who exploded onto the scene early in S78, averaging around 21 points in his first few games. He was the talk of the town then, scintillating fans and pundits with his speed, shiftiness, and shooting. He was, however, more a product of the system than individual greatness. The Pumaren trademark of relentless end-to-end pressure was on full display clad in Recto crimson, and it laid waste to NU and Adamson early on last season. Batiller was at the forefront of that assault, and he may very well reprise that role in S79. If the General Santos native can, indeed, show that his game and decision-making have improved, he may rise to the cream of the league’s wingmen anew.
UE doesn’t have an import, but we can’t sleep on a frontline composed of RR De Leon, Wilson Bartolome, and Alvin Pasaol. De Leon showed last year that he can hang with the best bigs in the league, and he even showed a soft touch from distance. Bartolome was a rebounding and shot-blocking demon for Chiang Kai Shek HS before being picked up by NU and stashed in their Team B for a couple of seasons, but he should be raring to prove his worth now that he’ll see some burn. Pasaol was heavily-recruited last year, and Pumaren was the one fortunate enough to land this 6’3 hybrid forward. The Davao del Norte native showed over the summer that he has the chops to score from inside and outside, and that he can also crash the boards. It’s an all-local frontcourt for UE, but they may yet prove to be an effective, if under-appreciated, bunch.
What will be tough in S79:
After an opening day loss to UP last season, UE was written off by a lot of observers, but back-to-back wins against NU and Adamson put them right in the thick of the “Hey, look at this” conversation. Most people in last week’s S79 presscon picked Adamson as THE dark horse to watch this season, but there was some buzz around UE as well. Much like Ateneo, UE will be banking on the competence of their head coach, whose main challenge this season is to find a new dimension to his system, especially since all other comers will expect the Reds to trap and press the entire game and prepare for that accordingly. Without the element of surprise they exploited last season, UE has to find new ways to inflict pain on their foes. Otherwise, all the potential from S78 may just amount to minimal gain in S79.
Aside from Batiller and De Leon, veterans like Paul Varilla, Clark Derige, Emil Palma, and Ed Charcos will all have to step up this season to really propel UE to a path that, hopefully, ends with them in the Final Four. Once they get there, and with a savvy coach like Manong Derek on the sidelines, anything can happen. Again, though, it all depends on whether this team has matured or regressed compared to last season. Has having one year together under their belts made the Warriors wiser, or did they rest on their laurels thinking that much of what they did last year will yield even better results this time around? – By Enzo Flojo
Follow this writer on Twitter: @hoopnut
Enzo Flojo writes opinion pieces for FOX Sports related to basketball