Since they last won the UAAP Men’s Basketball championship in 2016, the DLSU Green Archers have arguably been the most disappointing team in Philippine collegiate basketball.
La Salle has finished fifth in the UAAP in three of the last four seasons, which is underwhelming when considering the sheer number of well regarded recruits that have shuttled in and out of this once legendary program.
The team has been mismanaged in recent years and its revolving door of head coaches is the most obvious proof of this. After Franz Pumaren left in 2009 following a bountiful 11-year stint where he won six championships, the Green Archers have had eight different head coaches who achieved varying degrees of success.
Juno Sauler and Aldin Ayo won one championship apiece in 2013 and 2016, respectively, yet their failed title defenses were enough for DLSU’s rabid fanbase (and team management) to quickly sour on them.
Pumaren’s other successors–Dindo Pumaren, Gee Abanilla, Louie Gonzales, Jermaine Byrd, and Derrick Pumaren–were not as fortunate and had even shorter leashes. Between the five of them, La Salle made it to the UAAP Finals exactly zero times in their combined seven seasons and made only three Final Four appearances. Furthermore, Abanilla, Gonzales, and Byrd lasted only one UAAP campaign with the Green Archers in what has become Exhibit A of its now infamous impatience.
What makes these last few years even more frustrating for the DLSU faithful is that their archrivals, the ADMU Blue Eagles, have dominated the league during this stretch. Ateneo has won the championship in nine out of the 14 seasons since 2008, including this most recent tournament in 2022 where they edged the UP Fighting Maroons.
ADMU head coach Tab Baldwin has been calling the shots for them since 2016 and they have benefitted from this stability to become the country’s model collegiate program. Over his seven years at Katipunan, Baldwin has established a first class system and culture that not only wins championships, but has also helped transform less-heralded recruits into PBA-ready players.
For comparison, La Salle has had four different head coaches in the UAAP since Baldwin’s arrival at Ateneo and this count will increase to five in the upcoming season with Topex Robinson’s arrival.
The 48-year-old Robinson, who had an eight-year PBA career, is a veteran mentor who has spent time coaching in the PBA and NCAA. The belief around the team is that Robinson is the man who can finally shut the revolving door that has been relentlessly spinning since Franz Pumaren’s departure 14 years ago.
Though it is still too early to tell if Robinson can succeed where his predecessors have failed, the early returns are quite encouraging and, especially in this situation, crucial in appeasing La Salle’s diehard community.
Robinson recently steered the Green Archers to a sweep of the FilOil EcoOil Preseason Cup group stage, winning all nine of their outings including morale boosting wins over the last two UAAP champions, UP and Ateneo. DLSU also just finished second in the elimination round of the 2023 PBA D-League Aspirants’ Cup to book an automatic semi finals slot.
La Salle has played with a renewed confidence over these past few months which is not exactly surprising given the number of highly recruited players on this roster. The biggest difference with this group compared with last year’s team though is the implementation of Robinson’s system.
With the help of a high profile coaching staff that includes longtime PBA assistant Caloy Garcia, Robinson now has DLSU running a more modern offense that maximizes the passing abilities of Evan Nelle and Kevin Quiambao. On defense, the team is taking less reckless gambles in its halfcourt trap where the deployment of double teams is much more selective versus previous years.
It appears that the players have fully committed to Robinson’s system and it has been a beauty to watch so far. In the end, it is this commitment that will be the deciding factor in their bid to reclaim the UAAP title. Having a talented rotation is one thing, but figuring out how to make all the moving pieces work together in a high pressure environment like this is the ultimate test.
Aside from working to earn his players’ buy-in, another positive development with Robinson that is not as commonsensical as it sounds is that it is clear that he has an understanding of the moment. Last year’s Green Archers peaked too early as it quickly became apparent that the team was not pulling any punches in the preseason.
DLSU won last year’s 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants’ Cup in impressive fashion and it rightfully established them as one of the preseason title favorites. Their UAAP Season 85 started on a promising note, including an early elimination round win over Ateneo which was also their first victory against their archrivals since 2017.
However, that win wound up being somewhat the pinnacle of their campaign. Injuries, which many attributed to fatigue from the preseason, began to catch up with the Green Archers and by the time they tipped off for their last game of the year—a playoff for the last semifinal slot that they lost—majority of their opening day rotation was on the sidelines nursing an ailment.
This time around, Robinson is taking a more systematic approach to this preseason. He uses a pseudo-passerelle approach for La Salle’s rotation in their FilOil games and gives key players games off for their PBA D-League and Pinoy Liga contests which, in turn, also gives other players more exposure.
While this may seem like a minor tweak, it is something that was missing last year and has the potential to pay off handsomely come the UAAP.
The players have bought-in to Robinson’s approach as well and their individual games have thrived within this system. Nelle, Quiambao, Mark Nonoy, and Michael Philips have all had their fair share of spectacular outings in the preseason.
The trimmed down Quiambao has stood out the most and is looking like a completely different player with his aggressive approach on offense. Nelle too has responded positively to Robinson and is once again playing like he did when he made the NCAA Mythical Five in 2019 while he was still with the San Beda Red Lions.
Newcomers Joshua David, Jonnel Policarpio, and EJ Gollena have turned heads as well and figure to be a key part of this team’s future. David, who graduated from La Salle Greenhills in 2019, is set to finally make his debut after it was continuously delayed due to several injuries. He has come on strong in this preseason and is likely to be a difference maker for this team.
The Robinson era at La Salle has gotten off on the right foot, but the true test of his success here will be determined by how he can operate under duress when he encounters his first bout of adversity with this team.
In the meantime, the honeymoon continues and it will be compelling to see whether or not Robinson can find a way to own this job and truly make it his.