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  1. Homestretch, and a Fearless Finals Forecast

    "I fucking hate you," said I.

    Mr Libog didn't even stop stuffing his gob with the excellently charred brick oven pizza with prosciutto and arugula as he asked, "What the fuck is your problem now?"

    "We didn't make the spread on the last game goddam it!" I exclaimed exasperatedly.

    "Its sports betting, you know, legal gambling but still gambling, by definition that is never a sure thing. If you want a sure thing, try stocks and futures," and he took a swig of his Diet Coke.

    The Ateneo won by eight points over Lasalle over the weekend, and our inveterate book makers gave us a spread of... a little more than that. As we were both inclined to think the Ateneo would walk all over Lasalle, much like their first round encounter, we put money on the Blue Eagles.

    "Its that so-called genius coach of yours, you know, that Tab Baldwin, he doesn't post (Angelo) Kouame up much, preferring that ridiculous pasa-pasa, ikot-bola bullshit. If he had actually trained Kouame the way (former Ateneo head coach Norman) Black trained Rabeh (Al-Hussaini) I swear to you Kouame would eat every frontline in the UAAP alive, every goddam frontline. But your guy doesn't want to do it that way, he thinks basketball is a team game where the, what was it he said? The 16th guy is just as important as the starting 5? God... what utter and absolute bullshit." And this time he was having at the very flavorful pasta tartuffo with vodka cream sauce.

    "What the hell is it with you and Tab anyway? Did he used to date your sister? Hindi si (Lawrence) Chongson 'yan ha," I protested.

    "I never said he was. And I would even go so far as to say he absolutely knows his stuff, certainly I might even say he's a good coach. Pero alam mo naman ang tingin ko sa coaches 'di ba? No such thing as a genius coach. Tab is not a genius coach, even Norman is not a genius coach," he said.

    We've had this conversation many times before of course, and I was wondering how this turned up in a discussion over the last Ateneo-Lasalle game.

    "If he was a real genius should he not go to his best player, all the time? Si Phil Jackson nga, kahit si Pat Riley, or si Greg Popovich, they always give credit and mention their superstars like Shaq (O'Neal), Kobe (Bryant), Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. How come Tab, when he has an interview, barely mentions any of his guys. If I had Kouame on my team, I would never bullshit the media: I'd tell them straight that 99% of the reason we're winning is because of Kouame. Hindi nga tayo halos maka-shoot pag nakaupo si Kouame eh, wala din tayo taga-gulo sa loob para hindi maka-shoot mga kalaban pag wala si Kouame. So ano pa silbi nung hocky assist at nung playing the right way na parati niyang binibida? Isaac (Go) was what, 15% from three-point range before the UP game? I thought Tab turned him into the finest stretch 5 in the league? 15%? We're near the bottom in terms of offense, where are all the baskets that are supposed to come from the 'Tab System' that everyone raves about? Don't tell me it only works on defense, because the reason we're at the top on defense is because our import blocks more shots than entire teams, and changes even more shots than he blocks just by being on the floor. I doubt that has anything to do with any system." As he once again went through his litany.

    I was waiting for him to get to the point.

    "So if he had trained Kouame and gone to him, the way Phil went to Shaq, Kouame would probably be averaging an easy 25 and 15 to go with his 4 blocks. He would've gotten an easy 30 and 20 against Lasalle, for sure. He's 7-feet, maybe 260 pounds, and he's gotten stronger and faster. Ano gagawin ng Lasalle para pigilan siya, ubusin mga fouls nina (Justin) Baltazar, (Brandon) Bates, kahit nung bulok na (James) Laput? (Jamie) Malonzo nga fouled out eh. You wanna know why we lost that bet? Because your coach is not a genius, worse, he's stubborn, and probably a little ego-driven, meaning Ateneo has to win because of Tab and Tab's System, not because of Angelo Kouame," he emphasized.

    "That's not a fair accusation. You can't argue with success, right?" said I.

    "Of course, 10-0, sinong gago magsasabing mali si Tab? Pero you were asking why we didn't win the bet. The answer is simple: Tab has to win HIS way." he responded.

    "So what about Lasalle, what happens to them now? They have five games to go, three against teams that beat them in Round 1," I asked.

    "Kaya na nila mga 'yon. Kaya nila mawalis mga huling laro nila. Sana lang hindi atakihin ng katangahan coach nila, or sapian na naman ng espirito ng bwakaw at bayani basketball 'yun dalawang maliit nila (Andrei Caracut and Aljun Melecio). Huwag na nila pahirapan sarili nila, pahawak bola kay (Jordan) Bartlett, gawin lang catch-shoot sina Melecio at Caracut. ...
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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. My Memorable Basketball Moments for 2017

    It is officially a new year, and yes Praxedes, we somehow survived the annual mandatory blood alcohol poisoning that is part of the rituals of ringing out the old and ringing in the new.

    Below, numbered for enumeration and not for order of importance, are my memorable basketball moments for 2017:

    1. Kevin Durant made the move and won his championship ring.

    There are those who think Durant ought to be commended for finally coming to terms with the fact that he and Russell Westbrook will never win an NBA world title together in Oklahoma City.

    There are also those who think Durant should never ever be allowed into the Hall of Fame because he took the easiest way out of that little conundrum by signing with the Golden State Warriors, effectively ensconcing the NBA title in the West for all time, or at least the next decade.

    Durant did what he had to do, and did it at a time when he can still win multiple championships in Oakland. Yes, if he was as great as he thinks he is then he should have stayed in Oklahoma and proven it.

    But then again, he doesn't owe anybody any explanation or excuse about making a move that is simply a no-brainer if he wants to have the one thing that all the true greats have, a championship.

    Unless LeBron James is cloned in Cleveland then the NBA has become boring for the next decade or so.

    2. Ginebra retains its Governors Cup title.

    Ginebra San Miguel and Meralco played to a record crowd of over 54,000 fans at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan in the Mother of all Game 7's as the Gin Kings retained their PBA Governors Cup championship.

    Greg Slaughter, who sat out the 2016 title run due to injury, finally got his first PBA championship on the hardwood floor.

    Meralco put up a heck of a fight, but in the end the superior size of Ginebra proved just to big (literally) an obstacle to overcome.

    If the Game 7 box office and television share was any indication, Ginebra is still the lifeblood of the PBA.

    3. Lyceum went from shit to sweep in the NCAA.

    Talk about the Lyceum Pirates in the NCAA and you'd normally get word associations such as "cellar dweller", "league doormat", "whipping boys". At least until this season.

    This season the Pirates completed an historic 18-game regular season sweep of the NCAA, including two tough games against reigning champion San Beda.

    Granted they eventually folded when it mattered most, getting swept 2-0 in the Finals as the Red Lions went on to continue their NCAA Dynasty.

    Still, no one can ever take away what Coach Topex Robinson, CJ Perez and the rest of the Pirates achieved this season. That si probably a record that will stand for the better part of this century.

    4. Christian Standhardinger, through no fault of his own, is now June Mar Fajardo's teammate.

    Mention Christian Standhardinger and what automatically comes to mind is the controversial trade that allowed the already powerful San Miguel Beer franchise to draft him with the Number 1 pick in the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft.

    No one except the most hardcore of hoops fans even heard of Standhardinger before this year.

    He is a strapping and active 6-foot-8 Filipino-German forward who spent his college years in the US NCAA.

    Then Gilas head coach Chot Reyes summoned him for national team duty and he answered the call.

    Although he was classified by FIBA as a naturalized player and not a local, he saw action with Gilas and showed Pinoy fans why Reyes wanted him.

    Fast forward to Draft Day 2017 and Kia gives up the rights to the Number 1 pick in favor of some role players, allowing the Beermen to nab Standhardinger.

    He now gets to play alongside four-time MVP Fajardo, although not right away since he still has an active ABL contract to play out.

    5. Chito Narvasa resigns as PBA Commissioner following the Standhardinger controversy.

    Kia, as mentioned above, gave up the chance to get Standhardinger in the draft essentially for three role players: JR Reyes, Ronald Tubid, and Filipino-American Rashawn McCarthy. Uh, who? Yes Praxedes, that was what everybody thought as well.

    Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, Narvasa.

    This trade would not have been consummated had Narvasa not approved it as Commissioner.

    This then led to a "schism" of sorts within the PBA Board, with five team allied with the San Miguel Corporation on one side, supporting Narvasa, and seven teams led by the PLDT Group on the other side asking for Narvasa's head on a platter.

    Although Narvasa held out for a while, he did eventually give up and resign.

    Truth be told nobody would ever in a million ...
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