The UP Fighting Maroons came into UAAP Season 86 as the title favorites and they have lived up to expectations so far.

The Fighting Maroons won their first three games by over 16 points and improved to 4-0 with a tough overtime victory over the FEU Tamaraws. Rookie Janjan Felicilda stepped up in their four-point win over FEU as he played his best game in the UAAP so far. The 5’7 guard finished with 17 points, four rebounds, and two assists in only 20 minutes. 

UP’s rotation is 10-deep this season and it will be fascinating to see which of their prized recruits step up for them on a game-to-game basis. Veterans Malick Diouf and CJ Cansino have been their most consistent players so far and this team could potentially find another level once Harold Alarcon and JD Cagulangan find their stride.

Though UP looked quite vulnerable in their latest win against the Tamaraws, they found a way to pull through and the collective experience gained from this trial should only help them in the coming weeks as their schedule grows tougher.

The Fighting Maroons have the winless UST Growling Tigers next on their schedule before they wrap up the first round with back-to-back games against their fellow contenders, the DLSU Green Archers and the reigning champion ADMU Blue Eagles.

DLSU is right behind UP in the standings with a 3-1 record as they have won their last two outings following their loss to ADMU. On paper, these Green Archers might be even deeper than the Fighting Maroons. La Salle typically deploys a quality 12-man rotation that features Most Valuable Player candidates Kevin Quiambao and Evan Nelle along with last year’s Mythical 5 member Michael Philips.

While DLSU may have a slight advantage in terms of depth, UP has a clear cut edge in terms of coaching at the moment. The Fighting Maroons’ head coach Goldwin Monteverde already led this team to the championship back in 2021 and, since then, has continued to prove that he is one of the best tacticians in the country today. First-year La Salle head coach Topex Robinson should close the gap on Monteverde as the season goes on though as he acclimatizes himself to the UAAP.

After their game against the Green Archers, UP will have to face Ateneo in a rematch of the last two UAAP finals. While ADMU may not have as much talent as La Salle and UP on the court this season, their sideline mentor Tab Baldwin is a superstar in his own right.

Baldwin and his Blue Eagles may be in unfamiliar territory in the middle of the pack with a 2-2 record at the moment, but one can never count out a team led by the 65-year-old Kiwi-American. They proved this with their come-from-behind win over DLSU where Baldwin put on a coaching masterclass that left their opponents stunned.

The system installed by Baldwin has maximized 21-year-old forward Kai Ballungay who is poised to join Diouf, Quiambao, and Nelle in this year’s MVP race. Ballungay may not be the most skilled offensive player, yet his relentless motor and finishing ability have allowed him to become the leading scorer for this Ateneo team.

UP has several different players that they can throw at Ballungay to disrupt his rhythm, though the only safe assumption that can be made when facing Ateneo is to expect the unexpected.

With the UAAP season now in full swing, these next few weeks will be crucial as the standings slowly take shape. There is a strong chance that the Fighting Maroons emerge from the first round undefeated and it would not come as a surprise if they built on this momentum to eventually sweep through the entire elimination round.

The season may be young, but this UP team has already made it known to the rest of the league that the road to the UAAP championship goes through Diliman.