It’s not everyday you see the defending champions ADMU Blue Eagles look so hapless like they were against the NU Bulldogs.

The Blue Eagles never led by more than three points, and that was with less than seven minutes left in the opening quarter. Ten Bulldogs scored in the win, with nine finishing with at least six points and answering the call whenever Ateneo threatened to cut the lead.

Of course, there will be those that will chalk this up to ADMU having no Ange Kouame and having a squad with a number of rookies and role players thrust into larger roles. However, we have to give credit where credit is due: to NU.

In reality, we can even go as far as saying that this was the product of years of hard work and patience.

Since winning the UAAP Season 77 Men’s Basketball Championship, the Bulldogs have been teetering between Final Four contender and close but not close enough. Season 85, though, saw NU make the Final Four for the first time since Season 78, yet it was a brief and painful trip. The Bulldogs ended the preliminaries as the third seed and had the UP Fighting Maroons on the ropes for much of their Final Four contest, but in the end, the Fighting Maroons came away with the hard-fought win.

NU head coach Jeff Napa deserves credit for bringing the program this far by integrating his recruits and giving the holdovers opportunities to shine. Napa is in Year Three of his tenure with the Bulldogs seniors team and has won at least six games in Seasons 84 and 85. NU’s management should exercise patience, more so as the players get more comfortable with their former player’s system.

From the warmups to the games themselves, it’s evident how there is not just structure, but a reason behind every move. Players getting shots up from various spots on the floor prior to the start of the game is commonplace in basketball, but it helps everyone stay ready. Judging by the balanced scoring against the Blue Eagles, it did pay off.

The four-corner passing drill is geared towards working through chaos, as what happens in the game rarely goes according to plan. Broken plays were a frequent sight, but the Bulldogs more often than not found a way to get the best scoring opportunity.

More challenges await NU as they will still face UP and the DLSU Green Archers, both of whom can match up with the Bulldogs in terms of personnel, in the first round. The Bulldogs do have the benefit of having a system in place for quite some time, versus the Green Archers, who are in Year One of the Topex Robinson era. But then again, facing a frontcourt led by Kevin Quiambao and Michael Philips will be easier said than done. The same goes for the Fighting Maroons, who have more than five players who could start on any other UAAP frontcourt and an experienced set of lead playmakers in JD Cagulangan and CJ Cansino. Kean Baclaan, though, was unafraid when he took on UP in the Final Four last season.

Nonetheless, the NU Bulldogs, led by head coach Jeff Napa, have never been afraid to punch above their weight. Their opening win over the defending champions ADMU Blue Eagles was a statement to the rest of the league, but it was also the product of the years of hard work and persistence towards building a program that places a premium on substance rather than style.