Hard to believe that four years ago, the University of the East returned to the UAAP Finals and became the only team to beat the reigning 5-Peat champion Ateneo De Manila in a finals game. That 2009 Game 2 Finals encounter was the biggest, and thus far only, defeat in the otherwise astounding record of the Ateneo in its five-year title run.
After that though, the Warriors once again became a sad sack team. Paul Lee was the only legitimate superstar left in 2010, from a roster that once included Pari Llagas, Elmer Espiritu and Marcy Arellano. When Lee left UE was trying to avoid the bottom of the standings with what was essentially an already ragtag collection of players and bad recruitment choices. All except for one guy.
Roi Sumang, the wondrous pointguard who resurrected his big time basketball dreams in 2010, finally played UAAP ball in 2011. As good as Sumang was, it was not a good time to be in a UE uniform.
2011 was when the Blue Eagles, already riding on a three-year championship run, were all but guaranteed a fourth straight title with the arrival of 7-foot- Greg Slaughter. Slaughter would go on to play two full seasons as the Ateneo completed its 5-Peat. 2011 also saw the arrival of Lasalle's heralded twin towers of 6'6" Norbert Torres and 6'8" Arnold Van Opstal. Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia were on a strong FEU squad. Adamson had its strongest roster in years with Alex Nuyles at the helm.
UE on the other hand was fighting just to not wind up as the cellar dwellers for that season. Sumang, still bereft of any focused coaching and individual training, often found himself running on fumes as early as midway through the third period of games. He ended that year averaging just about five points per game.
Skip ahead two years later and UE and Sumang seem to be totally different. Over the course of this past summer, the Red Warriors seemingly shook all of the loser tags clear off themselves. They beat Lasalle, Adamson and Santo Tomas en route to outlasting National University 81-68 in the Fil Oil summer tournament. Those were teams they could barely touch the last two summers, much less in the UAAP. They've completely turned the tables on them this time around.
"It was all about getting them used to winning, because they got used to losing before," explained Coach Boysie Zamar. Zamar, a member of the last UE squad that won a UAAP championship nearly three decades ago, came in as a replacement for his teammate on that title team, former PBA superstar Jerry Codinera, midway through last season.
Zamar is loath to admit it, emphasizing total team play as much as he does, but a great part of the transformation of his Warriors can be attributed primarily to Sumang. Sumang was adjudged MVP of the Fil Oil summer tournament after leading the Warriors with a near-triple double in their dethroning of NU with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
"We are never about one guy, or one player, we are all about team play, and we watch out for each other," Zamar said in one interview. But he could not avoid the topic of his star guard. "Roi is like our leader on the floor, because that is what a pointguard is supposed to be. And I'm glad he has risen to that challenge," Zamar explained. That was about as close to out and out praise for an individual player as any of the Warriors will ever get from their coach.
Of course UE's climb back to respectability is not just all Sumang's doing. Without a doubt another - figurative and literal - reason for UE's recent success has been 6'7" 250-pound African import Charles Mamie. Mamie has given UE the strong inside presence it so desperately lacked the last three years. He scored only 10 points in their title conquest of the Bulldogs, but he hauled in 21 rebounds, preventing the taller Bulldogs from getting second chances at the basket, and basically fueling the UE transition attack.
Mamie was also effective in helping neutralize 6'6" Emmanuel Mbe and 6'6" Alfred Aroga, NU's African imports. Both of the Cameroonian Bulldogs simply could not keep up with Mamie inside. Mamie basically scattered about and shoved the two Cameroonians aside. Both men combined for a mere 12 points and were in constant foul trouble trying to keep up with the powerful Mamie. This must have been especially painful for Aroga, who before the title game was named the tournament's best defensive player and member of the Mythical 5.
UE's veterans have also returned to try and make a legit run in UAAP Season 76. Lord Casajeros, dumped during the Codinera administration, ended his summer with a bang, knocking in 16 points against NU and basically helping keep reigning UAAP MVP Ray Parks in check. He won't have that kind of game every afternoon, but he has become a heck of a perimeter defender,
Once again the UAAP is looking good in the Fil Oil Flying V summer tournament. Three of the four teams in the semifinals are from the UAAP: the University of the East, Santo Tomas University and National University; the NU Bulldogs in fact are the only undefeated team in this tournament. Only reigning NCAA champion San Beda College made it all the way to the semifinals from among the ranks of the non-UAAP schools, and they had to overcome a tough De La Salle squad in the quarterfinals to get here.
Friday 7 June will see which of the Final 4 teams will eventually duke it out for the championship, with Red Warriors and the Growling Tigers tangling in the 2:00 PM game, and the 4:00 PM main game featuring the Bulldogs and the Red Lions. Let's take a look at the respective match-ups.
Of all the teams that the Espana-based cagers had to face, the boys from CM Recto must be the ones with whom they would have the most difficulty. UE features arguably the best pointguard in college ball now in the person of 5'8" spitfire Roi Sumang. Sumang has been the big block V8 driving the muscle car know as the Red Warriors. He has the keys to the Warriors and the full trust of Coach Boysie Zamar and the entire coaching staff.
UE's strength here happens to be the primary and glaring weakness of UST. With the graduation of Jeric Fortuna, the man who steered the Tigers to last season's UAAP Finals, Coach Pido Jarencio's squad has been playing a lot of directionless basketball. While there are players listed as pointguards on the UST roster, none of them thus far have done anything on the court in support of that designation.
At various times the following have played the point position for UST: Robin Tan (hopeless cause), Clark Bautista (strictly an off-guard who does not really know how to advance the ball against pressure), Ed Daquioag (a swingman with a relatively high dribble who cannot really set plays), and Jeric Teng (another swingman, one who looks for his own offense as his first recourse). UST has made it this deep into this tournament in spite of this glaring lack. But ranged against Sumang, this could well be as far as the Tigers go.
At every other match-up though UST and UE seem evenly set. Lord Casajeros, John Noble, Chris Javier, Ralf Olivarez, Adi Santos, Ivan Hernandez, Jai Flores, JR Sumido, and Dan Alberto have been a productive and reliable rotation for the Warriors. Teng, Bautista, Daquioag, Aljon Mariano, Kevin Ferrer and even Paolo Pe have produced just as well for UST. UE clearly has an edge in terms of depth and size though. Mariano, Ferrer and Teng might have the edge over their UE counterparts Casajeros, Noble and Santos, but once UST's Golden Trio sit down or worse, get into foul trouble, there really won't be much to look forward to on their bench. UE on the other hand can count on Olivarez, Javier and Sumido to come off their bench and still sustain a high level of play.
Both teams each have an African import for centers: 6'5" Karim Abdul for the Tigers, and 6'7" Charles Mamie for the Warriors. Abdul has not been his usual self in this tournament, playing listless and tentative. This is in stark contrast to the powerful Mamie, who has practically had his way inside throughout the summer. Abdul averaged some 16 points and 12 rebounds in UAAP Season 76, and has gotten nowhere near those numbers this summer. Mamie on the other hand is a double-double machine.
One other thing to consider: UE totally shredded UST in their elimination round contest even though Mamie was benched for disciplinary reasons by his own coaches - he came to the game late for their call time. Clearly this is now a totally different team from the last three years. "We just need to start winning again, because we were always losing before, and now we have to learn to be winners again," Zamar said in one interview.
Smart money says UE wins this one, but this time in a close fight, with maybe 3-4 points as the final count.
NU is the reigning champion of this tournament, beating La Salle for the championship last year behind last year's tournament MVP Emmanuel Mbe and the sensational Ray Parks. They did however need an overtime to beat the Red Lions in their opening weekend encounter about a month and a half back. Parks sent that game into extension time with a buzzer-beating three-pointer, then he and new import Alfred Aroga went to work in the overtime to put away the W. San Beda could just as easily have won that game.Mbe did not play in that game, and only came back to the playing roster towards the latter stages of the elimination round. He, Parks and Aroga will need to be at their sharpest best once again against the Red Lions.
San Beda for its part continues to rely on their highly talented import Ola Adeogun.
Last time I talked at length about the current top point guards in the UAAP. I had a chance to get some drinks with Wang-bu, a good buddy of mine. Wang-bu as all regular Gameface members knows is the UE resident of our site; he was also a UE Red Warrior back in the mid to late 1990's. He is currently in absentia online, taking on new responsibilities at the company where he is employed, and thus not having as much time as before to post in our Forums. He is going places, which is more than he can say for the state of Filipino point guards.
"Sino diyan sa UAAP ngayon ang tingin mo magiging star na point guard sa PBA, brod?" he asked.
I was about to say "Roi Sumang" when he answered his own question. "Si Roi Sumang lang ang may pagasa diyan. Kahit 'yang sina (Terrence) Romeo, (RR) Garcia mukhang malabo maging star sa PBA," he added.
"Alam mo kung bakit?" he asked anew.
And again he answered his own question, "Wala na kasing magaling na point guard ngayon. Tignan mo buong UAAP, NCAA, pati na NAASCU, UCLAA at NCRAA. Isama mo na Fr Martin. May nakita ka bang sa tancha mo sure na pang-PBA na point guard? Wala na. Si Sumang lang talaga."
In a country where at good 90% of the population stands 5'6" to 5'8", and almost all of who play basketball, surely there must be at least 10,000 PBA-calibre point guard prospects out there right now. The statisitcal probabilities should certainly agree with me. Perhaps they just have not been found.
Wang-bu took his shot of the Gran Matador (free plug San Miguel, hint hint!), chased it down with some iced water, lit his cigarette, took a good initial drag on it, exhaled the smoke upward, then answered me thoughtfully, comprehensively. "Ah ganun ba? Eh nasan na nga sila? Nasan na 'yang 10,000 na sinasabi mo? Sa laki ng binibigay ng mga gastador na mga paaralan ngayon, ibig mong sabihin wala pa silang nahihikayat ni isang magaling na point guard mula sa buong Pilipinas? 'Yun ngang mga tropa natin na Lasalista akala ang galing-galing na nung Thomas Torres nila. Paputol ko kaliwa ko kung kayang talunin ni Torres nila si Sumang."
I took up the cudgels for the young man from Lasalle Greenhills, extolling his virtues and vociferously reminding Wang-bu that it was our very good friend, John Flores, who made a legit UAAP point guard out of Torres.
Wang-bu wasn't having it though. "Mahal natin si John, brod. Pero siguro naman kahit anong trabaho gawin ni John, at ni (Gee) Abanilla at ng buong coaching staff pa ng Lasalle para kay Torres ay hinding-hindi niya aabutin ang likas na husay at galing ni Sumang. At kung hindi man lang niya maaabot ang antas ni Sumang, na siyang natatanging tingin ko na pang-PBA, ergo hinding-hindi pang-PBA si Torres. Antagal mo na din sa larong busluan, brod. Huwag mo sabihin sa akin na sa loob ng apat, limang taon Sumang-level na si Torres. Ang magaling, kada angat ng antas ng laro, angat din ang mismong laro niya, parang si Sumang, parang si Kiefer (Ravena) mo. Ganun ang mga sure na sure pang-PBA."
I told him about the likes of Rex Leynes (St Francis of Assisi College), Rey Gracilla (San Sebastian Cavite) and Jordan Melano (Arellano University) who we both saw playing just a couple of years back, and we both agreed each and everyone of those guys have PBA talent. My point here is that those guys simply never made it to the UAAP or NCAA and thus never got the chance to show their game.
Wang-bu was even with me when we brought Leynes to Harbour Centre some three years ago to try out. Leynes lost out in the roster race to Pamboy Raymundo, at that time coming off the San Sebastian NCAA championship of 2009. Leynes was better than Raymundo talent-wise, but Raymundo was simply better able to grasp organized basketball better, at least in the Harbour Centre scheme of things. Harbour Centre would come scrambling to get Leynes a year after that, when a PBL selection lost to a (now defunct) Liga Pilipinas selection with Leynes leading the Liga side.
Gracilla played toe-to-toe and basket-for-basket in a losing stand by his Bay Cats against a Letran side in the PCCL over three and a half years ago that then still featured RJ Jazul. Jazul at that time was on his way to Smart Gilas, and he was outplayed by Gracilla. Jordan Melano led his Chiefs into the Elite 8 Round of that same PCCL tournament, knocking out a UST side that back then had yet another Smart Gilas pioneer and UAAP MVP in Dylan Ababou. Melano outplayed both Rex Cortez and Japs Cuan.
None of those guys, as good as they were, and for whatever reason, ever played on a UAAP or NCAA school. Melano was gone by the time Arellano became an NCAA member-school. Any of these guys would have been sure match-up problems against the top sentinels of the two top leagues
There is a basketball truism that says the most difficult position to learn is point guard.
Indeed it does take the entire gamut of basktball skill and talent to succeed as a point guard, more so in the modern game. Shooting and scoring, defense, handling, passing, rebounding, defense all take on greater importance when you play point guard. Speed, quickness, agility, strength, spring, ease in changing directions are all at a premium when one is a point guard.
You could live with a plodding but bull strong center, a bulky power forward with limited range, a small forward who barely defends and doesn't run all that hard, even an off-guard whose only real talent is shooting the long ball. You will however positively die if you have a less-than-complete point guard. When people tell you that all you need is size and you'll win, they must be talking about basketball from the 1970's. A team with an elite point guard can contend even without a single 7-footer on their roster. But a team with a slew of talented forwards and big centers won't get much done without at least an all-star level point guard.
Witness the case of Santo Tomas in the Fil Oil summer tournament. Jeric Fortuna was a full term five-year player who was his team's fulltime starting point guard in his last two years in the UAAP. A lot of people thought the diminutive former Zobel Junior Archer would never become a legit UAAP player, much less a true star. He was barely 5-foot-6, not really a stud athlete, and all he could really do was shoot from deep coming out of high school. His own college team wasn't hotly in his pursuit. He wound up with the Growling Tigers and very nearly led his team to a king-size upset of reigning champion Ateneo in the Season 75 Finals.
Now that Fortuna is gone his Tigers are finding things a little difficult. They still have four of the best players in the UAAP: 6'5" Cameroonian center Karim Abdul, 6'4" forward Kevin Ferrer, 6'3" forward Aljon Mariano and 6'2" swingman Jeric Teng. If this was four-on-four basketball UST would likely win it running away. Without Fortuna though, the Tigers have struggled just to advance the ball even against middling teams. Opposing defenses just sit three-quarters court in a press then wait for Teng or Ed Daquioag or Clark Bautista to hang on to the ball a second or two longer than they should. Abdul has seen very few good passes, and has completely lost the drive-draw game he ran so well with Fortuna.
Meanwhile the opposite is true with University of the East, as Roi Sumang is showing all and sundry that he is indeed the best damn point guard now in all of college basketball. Sumang is a blue even at the halfcourt sets, when he uses his incredible handles and explosiveness even coming from a standstill to cut up the tightest of opposing defenses. Sumang cannot be guarded one-on-one, and even when he runs into an opposing big man, his hang time and ability to take a hit gets him two points, or a foul and trip to the 15-foot line, or both. He now also has the luxury of dumping drive-draw passes to mighty 6'7" Charles Mamie inside, or to much-improved 6'3" JR Sumido for the long jumper. Defenses have to respoect Sumang's jumpshot and drive so much they have no choice but to help and collapse on him, leaving his teammates open.
A rather weird situation, not quite good and not quite bad, has happened over at Far Eastern though. They might have the best-scoring backcourt combination in the league in the three-headed monster of RR Garcia, Terrence Romeo and Mike Tolomia, but these guys have hardly done that which is the hallmark of all good guards: set up their guys and distribute the ball. Instead they are, all three of them, in that rather peculiar spot of being their team's 1-2-3 punch.
With all three of them taking shots, FEU's still-all right frontline has become practically useless. Where Sumang (and Fortuna before him) kept their big guys happy and generally directed traffic on the court, Garcia, Romeo and Tolomia have just taken turns taking shots. If the FEU frontline wants to score they need to get offensive boards or look for their own shots. Even in transition the three Tamaraw guards are getting most of the scoring opportunities. Romeo is without a doubt the worst offender (most offensive?) of the three. Garcia and Tolomia at least willingly make the occasional pass to a teammate.
One can hardly blame the three guards though, as obviously this is how their coaches want them to play. Bert Flores, who first put the trio together two years ago, famously declared that he played them as a three-guard lineup on the floor because, "Malay mo, may pumutok sa kanila, o magkasabay-sabay sila, mahirap pgilan 'yon." UAAP watchers of course know that never happened. Not once. Especially not when it mattered most, in their 2011 Finals rematch
Ray Parks is a two-time most valuable player awardee in the UAAP, one MVP trophy for every year he has so far been in the league. He has also been the league's leading scorer, has served his country on the RP Youth team under Eric Altamirano and won a gold medal in the SEA Games as a member of the Smart Sinag national team. Even a dolt with a room temperature basketball IQ can immediately see that he is a a very talented, very gifted basketball player, perhaps among the best of all time in Philippine college sporting history.
Even before Parks returned to the country of his birth there was already plenty of excitement about the young man whose late and much-lamented father was arguably the best import to ever play in the local pro league. Bobby Parks was a seven-time best import awardee who saw action for San Miguel Beer, Shell and a few other stints here and there in the PBA. He was so good that the league honored his passing by naming the Best Import Trophy after him. A lot of that talent obviously rubbed off on his son, Ray.
I would venture to say however that Ray is not quite in the same league as his esteemed father. This comes at a time when the younger Parks seems set to call this his swan song in the collegiate ranks. There was already plenty of talk going around even before the Parks family came back to Manila that Ray would most likely stay in college for only three years, four on the outside. It was surprising enough that after the overtures of his own ninong, former Ateneo De Manila Coach Norman Black, that Ray eventually matriculated to the once-moribund National University Bulldogs. Local sports pundits and watchers were even more surprised that it seemed Ray already made up his mind from the get-go that he would not stay in college for too long, moving on to the PBA as soon as he felt ready. Three years was the period speculated upon at the time.
With the passing of his father Black Saturday of this year, it seems Parks has little to no incentive left to stay beyond his third year in NU. "That (turning pro) is one option we are keeping open," he said in one interview after his father died. I would posit one incentive though: He still needs to get better.
Let me repeat that: He still needs to get better.
I honestly think Parks is not yet ready to join the pro ranks. Technically speaking this is his fourth year in college, his first year being split between his RP Youth commitments and getting his feet wet in the local collegiate circuit in the Fr Martin Cup. The reason he was not named the ROY-MVP in his rookie year in the UAAP was because he was not a "true" rookie by the UAAP definition, i.e. a player who went straight to the senior division right after high school without any interegnum.
I could probably do a numerical / statistical modeling comparison to show what I mean, but that would not work, since as already mentioned the guy is a two-time MVP. He is arguably the best player in the league now. (Long-time readers, all four or five of them, already know that I have this thing about MVP awards, hence my aversion to actually referring to any player as "most valuable".)As the UAAP bases its MVP strictly on stats, obviously Parks has the best stats in the league.
Therein is the first incentive: Parks has not even gotten NU into the UAAP Finals, nevermind getting the Bulldogs a title. Any stat hog can get good numbers. Parks's coach, Eric Altamirano, has in fact been criticized by some UAAP watchers for doing precisely that in the case of Parks, letting the guy play on even in clear wins or clear losses, just so his stats will remain at MVP levels. As far as I'm concerned that is Altamirano's prerogative, period. What is more telling is that in spite of his MVP trophies Parks apparently is not the NU basketball savior he was once thought to be. Reigning UAAP champion Ateneo has in fact beaten the ever-living tar out of Parks and his Bulldogs in every game they've ever played in the UAAP in the Parks era. Parks even nearly wound up with a career-low six points in one elimination game against the Blue Eagles with veteran Kirk Long all over him. He eventually got to double-digits in the garbage time of that game that the Ateneo handily won.
All of the other UAAP superstars who eventually became PBA superstars all won at least one UAAP championship: Robert Jaworski, Bogs Adornado, Allan Caidic, Benjie Paras, Ronnie Magsanoc, Dennis Espino, Rey Evangelista, Johnny Abarrientos, Don Allado, Renren Ritualo, JV Casio, Enrico Villanueva, LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Mac Cardona, Arwind Santos, Chris Tiu, among many others. While it is also true that a lot of PBA superstars never won a UAAP championship, James Yap comes most prominently to mind, there is just something uniquely special about a player who can win titles at both the college and pro levels.