Playing with something to lose: How Aldin Ayo is shaping a new era for UST

MANILA, Philippines – Aldin Ayo’s sudden departure of De La Salle University to move to University of Santo Tomas was unexpected. Only a year removed from leading the Green Archers to a UAAP championship, not many – if anyone at all – would have predicted the young and successful head coach would shift allegiances so quickly. But such is the theme with college basketball coaches in the Philippines: anything can change at any given moment.

While the topic of how Ayo handled his departure from La Salle is a conversation for another day – let’s just say La Salle brass isn’t pleased and Ayo’s word isn’t exactly gold anymore – there’s no denying his arrival is exactly the kind of shot in the arm the UST basketball program needs to return to relevance.

The Growling Tigers, who for so long have been considered a premier part of UAAP basketball, have fallen off a cliff in the past two years. As Ayo’s Green Archers went 16-1 and swept Ateneo in the finals in 2016, UST started its first of two seasons under Boy Sablan with a 3-11 record – tied for last with UE in the league standings.

The following year, the Growling Tigers – who made the finals 3 times from 2012-2015 – had one highlight for 3 months worth of basketball: not going winless, by prevailing in their final game of the season against a UE team which once again won only thrice in 14 outings. Talk about a low point.

But with the basketball program now supervised by Ayo, who won titles in his debut seasons with Letran and La Salle, there’s excitement, hope, and, most importantly of all, confidence within the Tigers.

“I think the team got sharper and in terms of confidence, our confidence is really high,” said someone close to UST’s senior club who requested for anonymity. “With the system of Coach Aldin Ayo, it’s already tried and tested. Everyone is so confident playing under his system.”

Mayhem. It’s the famous title for the system Ayo implemented both with the Knights and Green Archers. In deeper basketball terms, it’s a scheme that focuses heavily on full-court press defense to create turnovers and is complemented by fast, equal-opportunity scoring on offense. In essence, it’s effectivity through chaos.

But playing for Ayo means you’re going to get more than Xs and Os on a whiteboard. The former Letran player majored in philosophy during the days he was a student, and he’s applied those learnings to the game he loves at a larger stage.

For instance, Ayo recommends to his players to perform consistently as if there was always a lot at stake.

“He always tells us, since UST’s a cellar-dweller from the last season, lagi niya sinasabi sa amin na (he always tells us that) when we play, we always have to play na parang may (like there’s) something to lose,” said the source.

“Other coaches will say na, okay, guys, let’s be relaxed lang. Just play your game. We have nothing to lose. For him, when we play, sinasabi niya na kalokohan yun (he says thinking that way is a joke).”

For the 40-year-old Ayo, who signed a 6-year contract with UST, that mindset enables his boys to elevate their game and execute better on the hardwood.

“There will always be something to lose when we play. So you have to give your best,” the source explained Ayo’s teachings. “We have to take care of ourselves. Yung kaya namin i-handle (what we can handle), we have to take care of that.”

Turning a basketball team from bottom feeders to championship contenders is no easy task. It becomes even more dauting to accomplish in college basketball, where players have to focus not only on training and competing but also on academics and the part of their lives when they transform from teenagers to young adults.

Ayo, who’s relatively young for a basketball coach, understands this more than most mentors who used to play college hoops. In each of his stops before UST, the Sorsogon native managed to build close relationships with his players. These deep connections have correlated to his teams performing well on basketball court, and it’s a method he’s started to apply at his new home in España.

“What I like about Coach Aldin is he’s very approachable,” the source said. “With other coaches, it’s like a father-son relationship. With Coach Aldin, it’s like a brother connection. He knows how to deal with players.

“What I like about him, nakikipaglokohan siya (he jokes around) with the players. He knows how the players feel.”

The warm and welcoming environment Ayo is building in UST extends beyond him and trickles down to his coaching staff. With Ayo’s crew also taking charge of the Tigers’ junior’s team (an attracting factor which drew him to UST but has also caused a little bit of a controversy), that culture should soon enough be the standard for the entire UST basketball program from head to toe.

If anything, it should be a welcome change as compared to what the Growling Tigers had to endure in the past 4 years. While Bong Dela Cruz enjoyed relative success during his stint coaching the team (he helped lead them to the finals in 2015), reports eventually came out about him mistreating players. Sablan wasn’t put under investigation for similar circumstances, but sources say that the environment under his control wasn’t ideal for success either.

“For me, ang feeling ko parang (it was like) all the blame was on us. We were never thought how to deal with all the problems. Hindi kami na guide nang maayos (we weren’t guided properly),” the source said about the two years of UST under Sablan.

Ang pakakaiba (the difference) is how they treat the players,” the source said about how it’s been so far in 2018 with Ayo and his assistants calling the shots. “Ang maganda, na ba-balance nila yung (what’s nice is they’re balancing) being professional and being brothers to us.”

Beyond the coach and his staff, there are also other signs of UST turning the corner and beginning a new, more promising era. Holdovers like Steve Akomo, Jordan Sta. Ana, and Marvin Lee are expected to return and improve under a better head coach. Now that Sablan has departed, Embons Bonleon is also expected to make a comeback. The same for Renzo Subido, who took the last UAAP season off to focus on improving his game in the PBA D-League.

UST has also secured the commitment of reigning UAAP junior’s MVP CJ Cansino, who averaged 24.6 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.4 steals a game during his final season with the Tiger Cubs. The Growling Tigers are also set to have the services of Mike Enriquez from Mapua’s junior’s team, Joshua Marcos from La Salle Green Hills, and both Toby Agustin and Kobe Caballero from JRU.

“With Coach Aldin, everyone is really confident and everyone is really excited,” the source said.

“We’re just absorbing everything he’s teaching us.” –