MANILA, Philippines – The Adamson Soaring Falcons' main offensive weapons aren't shying away from establishing lofty expectations for their team in the UAAP Season 81 men's basketball tournament.
Third-year players Sean Manganti and Jerrick Ahanmisi both said this will be the year the Falcons finally break through the Final Four barrier and compete for the league title in a championship series.
"That's where we're aiming for and we really believe we're going to be there,” said Manganti.
Ahanmisi, meanwhile, had the same type of confidence with his statement.
"Of course. For the past two years, we've been making it to the Final Four and always been losing at the time we should be winning. The whole team should be expecting to be at that top spot by the end of the season."
Both players started their Adamson careers the same time as head coach Franz Pumaren, who was hired by the school in 2016 to change the Falcons' fluttering basketball program and – in the long term – lead the team to a championship.
Adamson made it to the Final Four as a fourth seed in Season 79 where it was eliminated by would-be champion La Salle. A year later, the Falcons improved and made it to the Final Four as the third seed, but was once again eliminated by the Green Archers.
"All the games that we've been through, the tournaments – we're confident we can hang with Ateneo and La Salle and all the big schools," said Manganti, who claimed his team's coaching staff is the advantage Adamson holds against its foes.
"We got one of the best coaching staffs in all of college basketball in the Philippines… we have a select group of guys that really want to win and we're all together. We're a team."
For Ahanmisi, it's the team's ability to stay mentally strong that will come in handy during critical situations.
"I think our advantage for this season would be our mental toughness. I think during the crunch time of the games, our team really pulls through and really runs the offense correctly and does everything that coach Franz says."
"For now, we're trying to limit the mistakes that we've been making towards the whole game or towards the end of the game. So I think that's our advantage – being mentally tough as a team."
If Adamson is to make the finals, it will need both Manganti and Ahanmisi to play even better than expected.
Fortunately for the Soaring Falcons, it looks like both players have the capability to do just that.
More of a role player in his first two years, signs point to this being the season for Manganti to become arguably the best player of the team. Already a solid defender and athletic standout, Manganti displayed an improved offensive arsenal during this year's Filoil preseason tournament.
In Adamson's last game – a close loss against NCAA champion San Beda in the quarterfinals – Manganti scored 18 of his 20 points in the 4th quarter and almost single-handedly led his team to a come-from-behind upset win.
"I know and everybody else on my team knows how hard I've been working. Outside of practice, I've been doing my own thing so I expected everything that's been happening right now," he said.
"If it happens, it happens," Manganti later said about being a potential MVP candidate in Season 81. "I'm just trying to win, but nothing would be a surprise to me. I'm grinding every day, every night."
Ahanmisi, who in his first two years looked very lean, appeared to pack on some muscle. He also touched on the topic of what aspects in his game he worked on during the offseason.
"I'm a different player in a lot of different areas of the game. Obviously I improved in my shooting, I think, and coach Franz has really been pushing me to play more defense and to be a leader to the younger guys that are coming in. I really had to adapt and change my game up a little bit," he said.
"I always have high expectations for myself, but for this season I'm just going to do everything that I can to help the team get to the Final Four and past the spot also," he later added.
There's no doubt Adamson also faces challenges, especially with how high a bar the team is setting for itself. Last year's starting point guard, Robbie Manalang, has left the team. Ditto with back-up big man Dawn Ochea. Both guys played major roles in helping the Falcons make the Final Four the last two years.
Ty Hill and Kurt Lojera, recruits from the United States, left the team and transferred to La Salle, adding to Adamson's losses. In turn, the Falcons are set to line-up seven new faces to a suddenly youthful roster.
"I think they'll be prepared for whatever comes in the UAAP," said Ahanmisi. "Coach Franz has been doing a good job in preparing them in what they're going to see in the UAAP, so all the rookies should be prepared and let's see what happens."
With what both players expect to happen at the conclusion of the UAAP season, it will be interesting to do just that. – Rappler.com