5 takeaways from UAAP Season 78

MANILA, Philippines – With the NCAA Finals between San Beda and Letran looking like it’s going to be a classic after an incredible game one and the return of the PBA highlighted by Tim Cone’s Ginebra debut in the first Manila Clasico game of the season, it felt like the UAAP went under the radar this past weekend.

Well, except for maybe La Salle’s epic collapse against the worst team in the UAAP. That’s going to hang around as a cloud over their heads for quite some time.

While attention was distributed among the different sports leagues in the country, the UAAP results over the past two days are significant as the collegiate league approaches the Final Four round. Half of the participating schools have only 3 games remaining in the eliminations, while the other half have 4 more. 

It’s make or break time for the entire league. With the exception of Adamson, who are out of the Final Four chase, the stakes have risen for the games in the upcoming weeks. Each victory and loss always matters in the UAAP, but with 7 teams in the playoffs mix in Season 78, the outcome of each contest has become even more meaningful.

Here are 5 things to know as the UAAP enters its stretch run:

THE SNIPER. Von Pessumal's improved play has been correlated to Ateneo's winning streak. Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

THE SNIPER. Von Pessumal's improved play has been correlated to Ateneo's winning streak.

Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

1. Ateneo is hitting their stride

It felt like just yesterday that the Blue Eagles were defeated by La Salle, Coach Bo Perasol was about to be replaced, and then he himself announced that 2015 is going to be his last year with Ateneo.

Now, the Blue Eagles are rolling and look like they belong in the same breath as UST and FEU.

After that loss to the Tamaraws that opened their second round, they’ve blown out Adamson, impressively defeated UST, and held off NU. They’re currently 7-4, in good condition to secure the third seed and with an outside shot of grabbing the second seed that comes with a twice-to-beat advantage.

Why the sudden improvement? There’s a bevy of reasons.

Ateneo’s not the Kiefer-centric team it was in the first round anymore. Arvin Tolentino finally exploded this season with a career game against UST. Aaron Black showed up big time against Adamson. Adrian Wong has been a steady presence on both sides of the floor in the point guard position while the Blue Eagles wait for Jerie Pingoy to remedy his injured ankle. Chibueze Ikeh has established himself as a top-notch rim protector in the league.

The one guy who’s been really impressively late, however, is Von Pessumal.

The fifth-year Blue Eagle made it a mission entering the season to let everyone know he’s more than just a shooter who can spot you 9 or 10 points a game. 

While shooting bombs from downtown remains his most dangerous weapon, it’s clear he’s worked a lot on other aspects and has added to his bag of tricks. He’s starting to fake out closing defenders on him more and attacking the rim with confidence. He’s improved on his fadeaway that allows him to hit midrangers. He’s being a better distributor.

Check out his statistics over the past 3 games, all Ateneo wins:

Against Adamson: 17 points, 6/13 FG, 3/8 3PT FG, 2 rebounds, 2 assists

Against UST: 16 points, 6/13 FG, 3/8 3PT FG, 1 rebound, 2 assists

Against NU: 20 points, 6/10 FG, 4/6 3PT FG, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

There’s no need to remind you that Ravena is a gifted scorer, but he’s just as good as a distributor. If you double team him, rest assured he will find an open man. Lately, he’s been finding more teammates, and they’ve been putting the ball in the hole. 

Pessumal, who’s currently playing like a top-10 UAAP player, has been his most trusted comrade. Heck, in the NU game, while it was Ravena who connected on 6 3-pointers early and had 26 points in the first half, it was Pessumal who delivered the finishing knockout on the Bulldogs with a clutch triple late in the fourth period. 

Ravena needed Pessumal to be the Robin to his Batman for Ateneo to be a title contender. But lately, the two have been switching roles as Batman and Superman.

Here come the Blue Eagles, more dangerous than they’ve been all season long.

HELP NEEDED. Alfred Aroga and Gelo Alolino have played well, but the Bulldogs need more firepower. Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

HELP NEEDED. Alfred Aroga and Gelo Alolino have played well, but the Bulldogs need more firepower.

Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

2. NU needs that third guy to consistently step up

This was the challenge for the NU Bulldogs entering their title defense. We all knew what they were going to get out of Gelo Alolino and Alfred Aroga, but with Glenn Khobuntin and Troy Rosario moving to the pros, who was going to be the third guy to give them consistent production? We’re near the Final Four, and it looks like that issue is going to cost National U a chance to defend their title in the playoffs.

Alolino has thrown his hat in the “Who’s the best point guard in the UAAP?” conversation. He’s averaging 14.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 3.7 APG while shooting 44% from the field and 30% from downtown, and when it comes to hitting BIG shots down the stretch, he’s up there with anyone in the league right now.

Aroga has been splendid as well, averaging 13.4 PPG, 12.7 RPG, and 1.7 BPG while shooting 44% from the field.

Here’s where it gets ugly: the third leading scorer in the team is J-Jay Alejandro, who’s averaging just 6.4 PPG. Next is Nico Javelona, with 5.7 PPG.

In some games, it looks like Alejandro can fill that void as the third fiddle in NU’s offensive attack, but then there are other days where he becomes a non-factor as he stays around the perimeter, waiting for the ball to come to him. Kyle Neypes has shown flashes of occasional brilliance, but it’s still tough to trust his jumper and he doesn’t have that finishing ability in the paint.

NU also lacks two things: playmakers and penetrators. They move the ball a lot east to west, but not enough inside and out. 

Their defense remains elite, ranked first overall in the UAAP, but they’re second to last in points scored, just fifth in FG %, and dead last in perimeter points. 

They’re currently 4-7, but only one of those wins was impressive: against UST in a game they trailed by 8 in the final quarter and needed an Aroga fadeaway late to seal the win. Their other Ws have come against UP and Adamson (twice), both of whom are a combined 5-16. They’ve managed to hang around against the more elite teams of the league, but the lack of an offensive punch after their two main guys has been their biggest void.

WHO'S YOUR PAPE? Adamson's new big man has been undeterred this season. Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

WHO'S YOUR PAPE? Adamson's new big man has been undeterred this season.

Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

3. Adamson is a good bad team

Confused? Well, let me try to explain.

Their record shows that the Adamson Falcons have been the worst team in the UAAP this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch, or can give opponents a challenge.

Out of those 9 losses, 4 have been by 6 points or less, so facing the Falcons isn’t an instant victory as other UAAP teams might think. 

They have the most dominant offensive force in the league today in import Pape Sarr, who in his first season is already averaging 15.6 points and 13.6 rebounds a game.

This season, he’s already had a 26 points and 22 rebounds performance against FEU. He put up 32 and 17 just last week against NU. He averaged 20.5 points and 15 rebounds a game this season against DLSU. He can shoot midrange jumpers. He can hit free throws. Like I said, dominant.

The Falcons still have 4 years with Sarr in the line-up, and if guys like Joseph Nalos and Frederick Tungcab develop well, this Adamson team will be much better sooner than later. Let’s not also forget that they’ve got former Green Archer Terrence Mustre coming in next year, plus this team seems to really play hard for rookie head coach Mike Fermin.

The future’s bright for the boys from San Marcelino.

BELO-TASTIC. The Tamaraws have been getting by the skin of their teeth recently thanks to Belo's strong play. Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

BELO-TASTIC. The Tamaraws have been getting by the skin of their teeth recently thanks to Belo's strong play.

Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

4. There’s a crack in FEU’s league-leading armor

The expectations, heavy and with nothing less but a championship finish, were on the Tamaraws’ shoulders entering the UAAP season. To say they’ve met those would be an understatement.

They’re currently 9-1, the best record in the league. Their lone loss came against the 9-2 UST Growling Tigers, in a game where the final score was 72-71 and they could have had a chance at a game-winner (they have a history of making those) if Mike Tolomia didn’t throw away his 10th turnover of the game.

They’re number two in terms of points allowed and tops the UAAP in points per game. They’re getting it done on both sides of the floor. Any one of their rotation players can be inserted and produce right away. They have two legitimate stars who can close in Belo and Tolomia.

Are they the favorites right now? Absolutely.

Are they unbeatable? No.

Why’s that? 

Turnovers.

The Tamaraws are tied for third in the UAAP with an average of 19.7 giveaways a game, but they may as well be second since DLSU, number two, gives up 19.8 a contest. The Tamaraws are also surrendering a second-worst 17.9 points per game off turnovers, are tied with NU for a league-leading 8.5 fastbreak points allowed per game, and are forcing just 15.1 turnovers of their own.

That’s why FEU struggled in both games against the UE Red Warriors this season, and it took big fourth quarters to secure the wins.

Here’s a recap of the Tams’ past few victories:

Against Adamson: 64-60.

Against NU: 61-59.

Against Ateneo: 66-61

UP: 68-57 (was a 2-point game early in the fourth period)

UE: 71-67

FEU’s flirted with danger in each of their past 5 games. That they’ve been able to close out those opponents speaks to how lethal they can be when the going gets tough and to their veteran savvy, but it could be just a matter of time before an opponent or two gets lucky bounces to go their way and take a win. Who knows, it might even happen in the Final Four round.

The Tamaraws have looked close to invincible this season, but that turnovers issue is beginning to really rear its ugly head.

MORE PERK NEEDED. Jason Perkins' averages have taken a dip this season. Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

MORE PERK NEEDED. Jason Perkins' averages have taken a dip this season.

Photo by Josh Albelda / Rappler

5. La Salle is more of a team in transition than a title contender

Truth be told, La Salle’s championship aspirations may have ended the moment Ben Mbala got on that plane to General Santos.

No UAAP team has been more inconsistent than the Green Archers this season. They can go from beating Ateneo to leading UST by double digits and hanging tough until the final buzzer to choking a 16-point lead against Adamson in a span of 3 games. It’s confusing, to say the least.

The talent to contend for a title is there, but it feels as if the pieces just aren’t coming together. Jeron Teng has been on a tear this season, playing at an MVP-caliber form, while second-year standout Prince Rivero is blossoming into a UAAP star, but their teammates haven’t stepped up to the plate.

Thomas Torres’ campaign has consisted of great games followed by disappointing ones, and his jumper has deserted him in Season 78. The same can be said for Rookie of the Year race leader Andrei Caracut, who had La Salle fans up on their seats when he attempted triples in the first round but has lost his touch in recent games. He did have to sit out two contests recently due to an illness, but his shooting was already inconsistent before he rested.

Jason Perkins, who was expected to be an MVP candidate this year, doesn’t look like the version of him from the past two years. Maybe the departures of Almond Vosotros, Arnold Van Opstal, and Norbert Torres has allowed defenses to center on him more, and he’s struggled to get rhythm because of it, but the version of Perkins we’re seeing now isn’t enough of La Salle wants to contend. After averaging 12.2 PPG and 9.8 RPG in his first year and 10.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG last year, he’s averaging just 7 PPG and 8.6 RPG this season.

There are 9 rookies on this roster and unlike past seasons, team head coach Juno Sauler has yet to really lock in on a rotation for the team. With just 3 games left on their campaign and tough battle ahead to keep their current fourth spot in the standings, that’s not ideal. 

Turnovers have been a big issue for DLSU as they’ve had trouble dealing against the press. And when they do cross the half-court line, opponents have learned that La Salle, ranked dead last in 3-point shooting (21.7%), has issues dealing with a zone defense. Adamson utilized that and packed the paint in the fourth quarter of their recent game, forcing DLSU to beat them with outside shots. Unfortunately for the guys in green, the bricks were deafening.

The Green Archers should easily be the title favorites in 2016. Assuming they return, Teng and Torres will still lead this team. Rivero, averaging 10 PPG and 7.5 RPG this season, should be even better. Mbala will finally arrive. Kib Montalba will return.  Joshua Torralba will likely still be around. The rookies - Caracut, Enzo Navarro, Larry Muyang, Andrew Langston, and more - will improve. Mark Dyke is coming in, and maybe so is La Salle Greenhills standout Ricci Rivero. 

That team is a championship contender, but La Salle’s 2015 roster, with how some key guys are struggling mightily and their inability to close out opponents (they’ve led by double digits in 3 of their 5 losses), is more of a team in transition. – Rappler.com