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In Your Face!

Let's talk balls.

  1. Round One. And Done. Part Deux.

    And now we come to one's-and-done. Or three's-and-done.

    Jamie Orme (now Malonzo) has proven to be the best of the lot of the three Filipino-Americans that the Green Archers brought in as single-season players for Season 82. At 6-feet-6-inches, long, and athletic, with a pretty good bead from three-point range, Malonzo is looking more and more like a future teammate of Paras's on the Gilas national squad. Ateneo was actually hot after him coming out of Prep School some five years ago, but he chose to play college ball in the US, and is making his Philippine debut in the UAAP.

    Meeker and Laput have so far proven to be busts. Meeker, a 5-foot-10 guard, can't seem to get anything going, in spite of being a double-digit scorer in his American college, while Laput, at 6-feet-8-inches, hasn't done anything more than resident big man Brandon Bates has done. So basically Lasalle recruited three guys to play only one season while getting production from only one of them.

    Veterans Aljun Melecio, Andrei Caracut, and especially Justin Baltazar, are all carrying the cudgels for the Green and White thus far. Baltazar is having an MVP season, although he's had problems against imports. Melecio and Caracut are still very good shooters who can come through in the clutch for Lasalle. Jordan Bartlett, Kurt Lojera, Encho Serrano, even Wacky Manuel are all bringing solid games.

    Their lack of an import however might be more telling than they are letting on. Although Lasalle has the most quality size across the board among all the teams, they still do not have that one super elite player who can go toe to toe against say Kouame, or even FEU's Pat Tchouente, the two tallest imports in the field.

    One other one-and-done getting plenty of buzz is Valandre Chauca, the 5-foot-9-inch point guard of the Adamson Falcons. Chauca, who has Peruvian and Filipino blood but was born and raised in the United States, is originally from UC Berkeley, and also had a pitstop at Enderun College. He's proven to be an explosive scorer and shifty penetrator and creator, very good with the ball in his hands and coming off screens firing.

    Chauca and Lenda Douanga, their 6-foot-7-inch import, are the anchors for Head Coach Franz Pumaren. Douanga doesn't make eyes pop out with his play, unlike Chauca, but his strength and size inside and his ability to hit that quarter-turning hook shot are proving invaluable for the Falcons.

    If Simon Camacho, Jerom Lastimosa, Vince Magbuhos, and Adrian Manlapaz can provide additional support on a game in-game out basis, especially on the scoring end, Adamson should be able to turn things around in the second round.

    UE and NU can thank their lucky stars they have Rey Suerte and Dave Ildefonso, respectively, otherwise they's both be winless.

    UE also has underrated import Alex Diakhite, a widebodied 6-feet-9-inches with unheralded skills and a veteran's mentality.

    --------------------

    So who will win it all?

    There is still Round 2 to go, but the Ateneo is looking very much as if a stepladder is going to happen, not unless any of the three schools behind them in the standings can pull off an upset in Round 2.

    Tab Baldwin has seen them all now, and trying to catch the veteran mentor by surprise is no longer possible, which makes the task of beating the Blue Eagles even harder.

    Round 2 should see a surge form both Lasalle and Adamson. UST might spin its wheels, unless Chabiyo can suddenly become a super import averaging a 30-20 in Round 2. Nonoy, Abando, Subido, Paraiso, Cansino are proving to be more down than up as they try to be good caddies to Chabiyo. That is a trend that might continue, or worse, even decline.

    Chauca now knows what he is up against, and Pumaren may finally give him more free rein, much like he did with Mike Cortez back in Lasalle.

    Lasalle for its part might finally be coming together, in spite of the chemistry and coaching issues that hounded them throughout Round 1. They cannot afford any more losses with four already racked against them.

    It looks like the annual bonfire at Loyola Heights will still include a trophy parade.
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  2. Round One. And Done.

    So many exciting things happened in Round 1 of the UAAP Season 82 Men's Basketball Tournament that we are a little glad it is finally over, since we indeed need to catch our breath and look over some things.

    Let us begin by taking a look at the official team standings:

    1. Ateneo (7-0)
    2. UP (5-2)
    3. UST (4-3)
    4. Lasalle (3-4)
    5. FEU (3-4)
    6. Adamson (3-4)
    7. UE (2-5)
    8. NU (1-7)

    First things first, so we can get this out of the way already: Ateneo De Manila has swept the first round, and save for their one-point escape over UST, all of their games have been blow-outs, their biggest one of course coming over the weekend at the expense of the UP Fighting Maroons, 89-63.

    How the heck a team that is near the bottom in terms of offense - both in terms of points scored as a team, and team field goal percentage - has been this dominant can be summed up in one word. "Defense. We can always count on our defense," exclaimed Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin in one interview. "Whether we can put the ball into the hoop might be a matter of luck going game to game no matter how well we prepare, but we know consistently what our defense can give us," he added.

    That defense begins and ends with Ateneo import Angelo Kouame, all 6-feet-11-inches of him, has blocked more shots than entire TEAMS. In fact only the Adamson Falcons - as a TEAM - have more blocks than Kouame. And even this might have already changed since the Ivorian big man chocked up another seven rejections against UP over the weekend. With the giant Ivorian patrolling the paint, teams simply cannot get their usual incursions or even second chances at the basket. Kouame also has a 7-foot-6-inch wingspan, great quickness, agility, and natural instincts going after the ball. His teammates can thus gamble more freely going after steals or even doubling and helping everywhere else while he stays home in the lane that is shaded. "It is just insane how much he can cover," rued Shaun Ildefonso in one interview, the NU forward whose team got blasted by the Ateneo by 21 points.

    Everytime Kouame is on the floor his team either builds up a big lead, or they quickly turn a deficit around, and when he has to sit, the Ateneo game starts to falter like a military line in the age of muskets and grape shot. "Alam mo, huwag na kasing lokohin ni Tab ang mga tao, nadadale siya tuwi na lang inuupo niya ng pagkatagal-tagal si Kouame," remarked the ever-sage Mr. Libog. "Andami-dami niya nalalaman na hockey assist at play the right way, pero pag nakaupo si Kouame mga malalaking lamang natin, nagiging five, nagiging nine, muntikan pa tayo sa UST, kailangan mo ba ng hockey assist at play the right way para maka-putback 'yung giant import mo?" he added.

    Even the advanced metrics guys back that up, with Kouame currently a Plus 18 whenever he is on the floor, and a Minus 17 when he sits down.

    Speaking of sitting down...

    UP is still solidly in second place, but uneasy, ironically, must the Maroons sit at present. They've had a couple of one-point escapes, including their last one against Lasalle's Green Archers, thanks to a win-or-die buzzer-beating three-pointer from swingman Juan Gomez De Liano. They can also thank one-and-done Filipino-American forward Jamie Malonzo for muffing a flurry of freethrows in the last minute or so of their game, allowing the Maroons to turn a four-point deficit into a nail-biter of a win.

    These Maroons could just as easily be at 3-4 with their escape acts, but sometimes the good are also the lucky. "We're lucky we have great one-on-one talents on our team," admitted UP head coach Bo Perasol in one interview. "If things break down, as a coach i do not have to worry how to save a possession, because I have easily four or five players who can create and make things happen on their own," he added.

    Kobe Paras, the balikbayan forward, may be the primus inter pares among Perasol's talented one-on-one players with his size, length, athletic prowess, and ability to take the ball strong to the rack, aside from pulling up and also making the occasional trey. His emergence however may have cost Juan Gomez De Liano some possession time with the ball, a role he relished en route to his Mythical 5 Selection last season. Now Juan has taken a backseat to Paras, and even to his older brother Javier, averaging maybe a third of what he put up last season when he helped lead UP to the Season 81 Finals.

    Another missing link is Ricci Rivero, the other transfer student who was expected to pick up where he left off after he suddenly changed varsity address from Taft Ave to Diliman over a year ago. Rivero had a chance to strut his stuff in the first two games of the season as Paras sat out their games against FEU (close win) and UST (blown out by 16). Rivero was ...
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  3. How Hard Could It Be

    With the UAAP about to start its 81st season this weekend, Mr Libog's thoughts naturally turned to thoughts of championship.

    "How hard could it be?" He repeated that question probably at least a dozen times over lunch at this new Vietnamese restaurant near where we live.

    (Note to friends: you should all give it a try, its called Ba Noi, inside Kapitolyo, in Pasig, their Pho is truly inspired, and huge, good for two if you have normal appetites.)

    Going back to our conversation, Mr Libog was off on another one of his discussions on basketball common sense.

    "Pare naman, hindi naman imposibleng talunin ng Ateneo ang Lasalle last year. Apat na vetreran starters ang nawala sa Lasalle, apat 'yon ha!," he emphasized.

    "Tapos ang pinalit mo, isang mad bomber na converted point guard, na-dengue pa along the way. 'Yung isa magaling na sana, kaya lang siempre may pagka-bwakaw, tsaka magulo maglaro. Take note, pareho pa silang sophomores, second year lang sa college parehas," he continued.

    I reminded him that they still had arguably the best player ever to set foot on a UAAP court in maybe the last 20 years, the incomparable Benoit Mbala. Plus they also had a veteran transferee in 6-5 slam dunk champion Leonard Santillan, and veteran 6-5 Fil-American Abu Tratter. Heck, they even had Kib Montalbo, Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, and 6-8 Justin (I am not spelling that with an "e" at the end because that is the feminine spelling and I don't care what it says on his birth certificate) Baltazar.

    "Sino ba point guard dun? Sino may hawak nung bola parati? Nakakarating ba kay Mbala?" he rattled off.

    "Tsaka, pare naman, may nakita ka bang galaw o pukol ni Mbala? Naalala mo ba si Orlando Johnson o kaya si Justin Brownlee sa laro ni Mbala? Hindi 'di ba? Sabi ko naman sa iyo wala naman talaga siyang pukol, matigas ang kamay, kita mo naman sa freethrows niya. Hindi din naman siya tipong kamador na may pullup or may tres gaya nina Johnson at Brownlee," he continued.

    Still, said I, Mbala is a heck of a player, and since this is only college ball, that makes him a titan on the court, plus as much as Mr Libog may have ripped into Mbala's teammates, no one would ever dispute there are probably more PBA players on Lasalle last year than the Ateneo did.

    I further reminded him that he himself made a pre-Season 80 prediction that Lasalle would repeat as champions, due largely, I reminded him further still, to, in his words, "Mbala wala talagang katapat."

    It was in fact the first time he said, "How hard could it be?" And indeed how hard could it be to win when you have a 6-6 titan on your side.

    "You remember I keep telling you how in the US NCAA it is normally the teams that do not have an NBA lottery prospect that wins the national championship?" he said.

    "I'm talking about teams like Villanova, UConn, etc. In the last 10 years, only the Kentucky team of Anthony Davis had a 1-done lottery prospect and won the national title, all the rest are mostly veteran teams," he explained.

    "Ganyan din actually sa UAAP, hindi naman just sheer talent. Look at Mbala's title team. Meron siyang Jeron Teng, Jason Perkins, Thomas Torres, Julian Sargent. Last year Mbala has two ball-dominant sophomores who barely played in their freshman year, a transferee playing for the first time in the UAAP, and a so-so talent whose best asset is he's a 6-5 Fil-Am."

    And he played against what, a bunch of all stars?

    "No, but Ateneo had veterans by then, battle-tested na. Thirdy Ravena, the Nieto twins, Anton Asistio, George Go, Vince Tolentino, even Ikeh, how many years have they been playing together? Graduate na nga sina Vince at Ikeh eh, Thirdy sat out a whole year pa, so that was how old that team was."

    "Same with Lasalle last year as well, nawalan sila ng apat na fifth-year starters. When they had all of those guys, especially Jeron, how hard could it be?"

    (I told you guys he said that a lot over lunch...)

    "So this year, fearless forecast ko, basta palaruin si (Angelo) Kouame, taya ko bahay namin pati lahat ng kotse ko, champion ang Ateneo," he declared.

    What if Kouame is ruled ineligible to play?

    "Sure Final 4 pa din, with a few breaks, or maybe some freethrow help from the referees, Finals pa din ang Ateneo. How hard could it be?"

    Everybody else?

    "UST and UE will dispute the cellar. All the rest rambulan na lang, although lamang na for Final 4 berths siguro FEU tsaka Adamson."

    There you have it folks.

    How hard could it be...
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  4. Reclamation, Upset

    "It was over, we are champions, that is all I could think of," said an ecstatic Chibueze Ikeh, the 6-8 center, in the aftermath of the Ateneo De Manila's thriller of a title clincher against arch rival De La Salle 88-86. This is Ikeh's final playing year. He is graduating in a few months.

    After three of the most grueling and emotionally-wrenching games in UAAP Finals history, the Blue Eagles reclaimed a championship they once owned for five straight seasons.

    "I just lay on the floor of the Araneta (Coliseum)," said point guard Matt Nieto after that last heave from La Salle went in. "I knew it was all over and we were champions," he added happily.

    Indeed, this had to be the toughest, and to use that millennial term, epic title series in maybe the last 15 years.

    Last year, the Green Archers were the veteran-laden team bringing in Benoit Mbala, arguably the best player ever to see action in the country's most popular varsity league. Somehow the Blue Eagles managed to get into the Season 79 Finals to square off against La Salle, and expectedly, the Ateneo bowed in a two-game sweep.

    Fast forward to winner-take-all Sunday just a year later, and suddenly the Ateneo looked nothing like the easy pickings they were just a year prior. "We learned there is no substitute for working the hardest you can," remarked Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin, the American-New Zealand mentor who preached "playing the right way" right from the get-go.

    Game 1 had its fair share of controversy, as videos from that game continue to make the rounds in social media showing at least four instances where La Salle players were taking cheap shots at their Ateneo counterparts, including at least three instances of closed fist strikes from the La Salle side that should have merited at least a one-game suspension on the errant players. The Ateneo still pulled off the 76-70 victory in this game, with center George Go completing the and-1 clincher.

    Game 2 saw the Blue Eagles go up by as much as 21 points, only to have the Green Archers turn that around and build up as much as a 13-point lead themselves, as they knotted the series at one game apiece with the 92-83 victory.

    Game 3, well, was a classic.

    The Ateneo was up 10 early on, but La Salle stormed right back in the third period, taking a 59-62 lead on a one-hander by forward Abu Tratter.

    But the Ateneo kept its composure and got an 80-70 spread midway through the payoff fourth period.

    La Salle would come to within 82-80 on a three-pointer, with over a minute left.

    Go however would reprise his hero's role, taking the perfect kick-out pass from a driving Thirdy Ravena to nail a clutch three-pointer from his favorite quarter-court spot to give the Ateneo the 85-80 breathing space it needed.

    "The whole team is clutch. I would not have made that shot if it wasn't for the coaches who design our plays, my teammates who were all in their proper spots," said the 6-7 Go, an Applied Chemistry Major now in his senior year in college.

    Nieto and Anton Asistio would nail the insurance free throws to negate the buzzer beating three-pointer from La Salle for the final count.

    This is the Ateneo's ninth senior division basketball diadem, and without a doubt the one they had to work for the hardest.

    Their 1987 and 1988 back-to-back titles, where Nieto's father Jet played, was a tall, tough, talented team.

    Enrico Villanueva, LA Tenorio, Larry Fonacier, Rich Alvarez, and Wesley Gonzales all went on to have very good pro careers, with a couple of them even seeing National Team duty, after they won the 2002 championship.

    Forget the 2008 to 2012 5-Peat dynasty under Norman Black. Those teams were so ridiculously loaded it would have been a crime for them to lose. Yes, even the 2010 team in between the Rabeh Al Hussaini-Nonoy Baclao and Greg Slaughter years.

    This championship was probably the only one among the nine when the Ateneo was the clear underdog in terms of sheer talent.

    I mean, come on, Benoit Mbala was playing for La Salle, and he had swingman Ricci Rivero, point guard sniper Aljun Melecio, 6-5 slam dunk champion power forward Leonard Santillan, and Tratter.

    "Sa totoo lang kung kunwari jak en poy tayo, tapos pipili ka ng players mo, sino ba mas pipiliin mo? Hindi ba talaga namang mas may talent and players ng La Salle lalo na si Mbala," queried Mr Libog over lunch before Game 3.

    "We need to get hot from three-point range, and hope for some foul trouble on Mbala at least, para may laban tayo," he added.

    Mr Libog got his wish.

    Baldwin did a heck of a job accentuating the strengths of the Blue Eagles while doing his best to minimize their negatives, not the least ...
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  5. Ateneo-Lasalle Finals Looms (Season 80 Edition)

    And just like that the flagship UAAP Season 80 men's basketball senior division tournament is about to come to a close.

    After 112 elimination games spread over two rounds, it looks like the consensus Top 2 teams really are going to have rematch in the Finals.

    ABS CBN and the League itself could not have planned it much better.

    Reigning champion De La Salle is just waiting for arch rival Ateneo De Manila to dispose of stubborn Far Eastern as of this writing, and the two best teams of the tournament will have another blockbuster showdown to cap off the 80th season of the most popular collegiate caging tournament in the country.

    Ateneo could have been first into the Finals, except that La Salle beat them in the last game of the eliminations 79-76, preventing a regular season sweep by the Blue Eagles and the automatic Finals berth that went with it. It was a reversal of sorts, as the Ateneo had prevented La Salle from sweeping last season on the last game day as well.

    La Salle already booked their return trip to the Big Dance with a controversial 82-75 decision over third-seed Adamson University. The Green Archers came back from as much as 15 points down to pull the rug out from under the Soaring Falcons in their Final 4 match.

    This game however came with quite a lot of baggage, and has (as of this writing) become subject of an official protest from Adamson. The heart of the matter: La Salle was awarded 39 free throws while Adamson only got five. Yes sir, that is no typo, the free throw difference was 39-5 in favor of the Green Archers.

    The League responded to the Adamson protest by immediately suspending the three referees that worked this game, "with two strongly recommended for being banned for the rest of the season," in their response to Adamson. "If only to preserve public confidence in our league," the response further stated.

    Adamson head coach Franz Pumaren repeatedly said this was the "worst officiating" he had ever seen, and it seems the free throw statistics support him, Ironically, Pumaren was once head coach of La Salle and even led the team to a 4-Peat from 1998 to 2001.

    What other steps the league will take on this matter however remains to be seen. It is very rare that a re-play of a crucial playoff game is held, for whatever reason. In my rusty memory banks I think the last tiem a crucial game was re-played was between FEU and National University, during the heyday of the Terrence Romeo-Ray Parks shootouts, and the details now elude me. Perhaps someone can clarify the details (or even my memory of this) in the comments section.

    A similar controversy erupted sometime in 2014, during the Round 1 Ateneo-UE game, when the Ateneo got a 40-24 advantage in free throws - with league darling Kiefer Ravena getting 25 free throws just for himself - and the Blue Eagles going on to overhaul a big UE lead to win that game in overtime. Ravena had a career 38 points in that game.

    The Ateneo for its part succumbed to the Tamaraws last November 19th 80-67. FEU led by as many as 18 at one point, led by veteran Ron Dennison and former Blue Eagles, forward Arvin Tolentino and guard Hubert Cani.

    "We haven't done anything yet. We just took away their twice-to-beat advantage," said FEU head coach Olsen Racela, himself a former Blue Eagle and part of the 1988 Ateneo title team.

    Their knockout Final 4 game is set for tomorrow, November 22.

    This is another deja vu situation, as the Tamaraws and Blue Eagles also went the distance in last season's Final 4, with the Ateneo eventually making it to the Big Dance.

    FEU held the Ateneo to a little over 36% shooting from the field, including a nightmarish 3/17 from three-point range in the second half. "We just shot abysmally, and I can't even tell you how or why," said Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin after the game.

    FEU for its part shot nearly 50% from the field and even got the lucky ones, like a 28-foot buzzer beater by Cani in the third period.

    As the Season 80 Host School, Racela and the rest of the Tamaraws are hoping to make a different outcome in the KO match tomorrow.

    Still, no one is betting against a rematch between the Blues and Greens.

    Because seriously, can there be a bigger blockbuster in present day Philippine basketball than friggin' Ateneo-La Salle?

    Who will take the title?

    Smart money says the Green Archers get their back-to-back championship.
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