College basketball is alive and kicking once again in the Philippines as both the NCAA and UAAP began their respective seasons after two years. Rabid fan bases from the member schools are eager to see their respective schools face off against one another even if from afar due to current circumstances.
As of now, no fans will be in attendance for both the NCAA and UAAP, but an improved COVID-19 situation and the ensuing looser restrictions could bring back one of the best atmospheres in all of Philippine basketball.
It’s a relatively-wide open title race in the NCAA compared to past seasons as the San Beda Red Lions and the Letran Knights remain among the title favorites for NCAA Season 97 despite it being 870 days removed from their epic championship series back in Season 95. It’s no surprise then that both teams pulled off wins on opening weekend despite it coming in contrasting fashion.
The Red Lions seem to be on a constant reload, recruiting talented players and promoting from within their own Team B and legendary high school program. That kind of stability was evident in their opening 91-82 win over the Lyceum Pirates. Meanwhile, the Knights were one of the beneficiaries of the mass exodus from the UST Growling Tigers, as the additions of Rhenz Abando and Brent Paraiso will likely offset the losses of key contributors and Abando had his fingerprints in a 67-63 win over the CSB Blazers.
Come-from-behind victories were the recurring theme for both the Mapua Cardinals and the Arellano Chiefs. The Cardinals needed a late surge to take their opening victory against the EAC Generals, while the Chiefs had to overcome an injury to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Justin Arana in their win over the San Sebastian Stags.
Meanwhile, the UAAP kicked off its 84th season with a basketball schedule that makes the turnover between games quicker and managing the health of players all the more crucial. Further complicating matters is the fact that UAAP Season 85 will be played out later this year, making any major injuries a curveball to the plans of teams.
Plain and simple, the Ateneo Blue Eagles remain the team to beat in the UAAP. Despite losing the likes of Dwight Ramos and Thirdy Ravena, their 90-81 win over the talented UP Fighting Maroons only goes to show that while players win games, having a coach like Tab Baldwin and a stable system in place trumps talent. All is not lost, however, for the Fighting Maroons. The loss to the Blue Eagles only pointed to where they currently are and head coach Goldwin Monteverde must make the necessary adjustments with his talented yet young roster.
The UST Growling Tigers, their opponents in the finals in Season 82, look like a markedly different team after a mass exodus stemming from issues arising from their ill-fated training bubble in Sorsogon. Gone as well is head coach Aldin Ayo and their 76-51 opening day loss to the FEU Tamaraws was both a testament to their state in contrast to the top-tier program and talent led by RJ Abbarientos.
Both the NU Bulldogs and the DLSU Green Archers pulled off solid wins today but there remain questions that may need to be answered as the season goes on. It may not be their time this season, but the solid start shouldn’t stop the Bulldogs from realizing some early returns that can reap long-term benefits. Meanwhile, the Green Archers remain as talented as ever but fine-tuning execution especially down the stretch will avoid those proverbial losses that spell the difference between an early offseason and a potential title run.
The yearn for normalcy, at least in the realm of Philippine basketball, has been satisfied with the return of college hoops. The passion that comes with Philippine college basketball makes both leagues a larger draw and more popular than the PBA, which in recent years has seen less fanfare especially when Barangay Ginebra is not on tap to play.
College fan bases will do that, as the loyalty to alma mater runs deep and with two years of having to wait, you know everyone has been eagerly awaiting from the jump.