College basketball teams fall into either one of two categories. On one side, you have teams that recruit players left and right, then implement a system they hope will stick. On the other, you have teams building a program, putting in place a system and bringing in players who would bring the best out of it and eventually win a championship.
The latter may be said about the NU Bulldogs, whose title run back in Season 77 was the product of a three-year journey that saw the Bulldogs make the playoffs and suffer some disappointing finishes along the way. All the lessons learned and the experience gained culminated in a championship run that ended a title drought that spanned six decades.
Unfortunately, Eric Altamirano, the architect of NU’s Season 77 championship, could not build on that title run and he resigned after two seasons of declining performances. Still in the developmental direction set out by Altamirano, the Bulldogs went with Jamike Jarin, whose stint with the Ateneo Blue Eaglets led to both individual and team success and looked promising after leading the San Beda Red Lions to a championship in 2016. Unfortunately, Jarin only managed to muster 11 victories over three seasons with NU, a number Altamirano nearly matched in 2013 when he led the Bulldogs to the top seed in Season 76 with 10 wins.
Despite that, NU continued to go with that direction and went with another coach with high school basketball success and experience in the college basketball scene with former Bulldog Jeff Napa.
Two seasons in, signs of growth are beginning to take shape in Napa’s stint so far with NU.
Like Altamirano, Napa began with a 6-8 win-loss record in his first UAAP season as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Yes, they finished in sixth place, but those following NU during UAAP Season 84 saw a scrappy team that kept competing no matter what the score was.
In the buildup to Season 85, Napa and the Bulldogs won the PG Flex Linoleum-UCBL Preseason Tournament while sweeping the 2022 FilOil EcoOil Preseason Cup. Of course, the environment is much different compared to the UAAP, but building a culture of winning starts with… winning games.
All the preparation was on display in their Season 85 opener against the UE Red Warriors, who they outlasted in a physical match that ended in a 77-70 win for NU. It was a balanced attack from the Bulldogs, who had six players score at least eight points led by John Lloyd Clemente’s 15.
NU controlled the paint and their 50-37 rebounding advantage and the 52.8 percent shooting from inside the 3-point line only showed how they managed to find ways to score through what turned out to be a porous Red Warrior interior defense.
Napa has managed to make his players buy into his system, thanks to how he empowers them and the results that come with it. As a result, the Bulldogs have been more than willing to move the ball around to find the best shot possible given that as long as they trust the process, the ball will find the best shot. There’s still work to be done, though, as the 19 turnovers nearly did NU over and will likely be something more talented and disciplined UAAP teams can pounce on later on.
Clemente has taken on the role of being the leader of this young and upstart team and not so much the man, since he can rely on the likes of John Figueroa and Kean Baclaan in sharing the offensive load. It’s the intangibles that make Clemente, who was also the FilOil Preseason MVP, valuable to the Bulldogs, who would rather that he be reliable than a volume scorer.
While everyone has lauded what Jeff Napa and the NU Bulldogs have done in recent years, it’s been more of a feel-good story rather than placing them up there as one of the UAAP’s top contenders. Napa and the Bulldogs never really paid attention to the outside noise, as they’ve let their body of work speak for themselves.