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NCAA Season 88: Still a Lion's League

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Now in its 88th season, the NCAA, the country's oldest and most historic athletic tournament opened at the Big Dome in typical glitzy fashion last weekend. As usual the basketball titles in both the men's and high school divisions are the centerpieces of the league. It should be no surprise to anyone that San Beda College is the prohibitive favorite to retain the titles in both caging divisions. Whatever else anyone may have to say, the road to the NCAA Season 88 basketball titles will still run through the gates of St Beda.

Essentially the NCAA has been the stomping ground of the Red Lions since the 82nd Season, when guard Pong Escobal and Nigerian giant Sam Ekwe suited up for the Red and White. They've gone on to win five of the last six titles, including three straight from 2006-2008. Their title run was interrupted by the San Sebastian Golden Stags in the 2009 season, when the San Sebastian roster was revamped and rebooted to inlcude current superstars Calvin Abueva and Ian Sangalang. It has been a San Beda-San Sebastian rivalry over the last couple of seasons since then.

That might be what makes the NCAA now not quite as exciting as it used to be, maybe even just 10 years ago. "The NCAA is essentially a league with one super strong team, two strong teams, and then everyone else," noted a veteran online sports writer who works for a popular global web site. "Outside of those three teams there just isn't much competition in the league anymore. The bottom teams are really struggling, and watching the games can sometimes be a trying experience," he added.

Let's take a look at each team ___

Arellano University: Coach Leo Isaac will lean heavily on his perimeter since he really doesn't have much size to bank on. The veteran guard combo of Rocky Acidre and Vergel Zulueta will elad the Chiefs, together with 6-foot-2 Filipino-Foreigner swingman James Forrester. They'll be running a lot of motion and staggered screens because if they cannot get out and run. 6-foot off-guard Adam Serjue, another expatriate of Filipino lineage, could have been a big boost but got injured before the season could even begin. 6-foot-6 Prince Caperal and 6-foot-3 freshman rookie Julius Cadavis are as good as it gets up front for Arellano. They will likely finish under .500 this season.

College of St Benilde: With arguably the best backcourt in the NCAA if not the entirety of college basketball nationwide, the Blazers will try to outrun and out-quick the opposition this season. Led by the electric Carlo Lastimosa, the Blazers will also be banking on Jonathan Grey, JP Taha and Luis Singco. If they can get consistent production out of their frontline, more than the usual rebounds and interior defense, they actually have a shot at the Final 4. But Jan Tan, Bart Bartolo, and Tyler Fikowski work hard but aren't really elite big men. St Benilde might still make a Final 4 run on the strength of their backcourt though.

Emilio Aguinaldo College: Pining for the days of yore might be the in thing for the Generals. Once upon a time they had some of the best players in all of college ball, like PBA star Ronjay Buenafe, and hardcourt legend Nino Songco. Now they have essentially a smallish team trying to keep up with the big boys. Jan Jamon had a great season on a bad team last year, but barely stirred in the summer. Russell Yaya was Ok over the summer and looks to continue that in Season 88, leading the Generals over Arellano in their last game with 17 markers. Head coach Gerry Esplana hopes to get some more out of guard John Tayontong and forward Noube Happi. This is a team looking at the wrong side of .500 ball.

Jose Rizal University: Loaded with veterans but short on size, the Heavy Bombers of head coach Vergel Meneses have a legit shot at making the Final 4. They have a pretty good blend with guards Alex Almario, Jon Villarias and Nate Matute, forwards Jon Lopez and Ralph Monserat, and undersized centers Raymond Carampil and Jon Mabulac. They have one of the best full court pressing defenses in the league, and they can score inside-outside. This is a team that nearly upended reigning UAAP champion Ateneo in the Fr Martin Cup Finals. They will have to figure out a way to match up against the taller timber though.

Letran: Head coach Louie Alas preaches toughness, defense and sharing the ball, except perhaps where his son Kevin is concerned. Kevin scored 31 points in their big opening day win over mighty San Sebastian, with the 5-foot-11 guard showcasing the new skills he learned on a month-long personal training camp in the US. Alas father and son are the real engine driving the Knights' train, and they should find their way easily enough into the Final 4 in their Hosting Year this year. Mark Cruz, Jon Belorio and Kevin Racal will provide plenty of support.

Lyceum: This is another team that was much better before it joined the NCAA. Now head coach Boni Tan is essentially leaning on a smallish roster led by guards Chris Cayabyab and Shane Kho. They've already dropped at least two assignments as of this writing inlcuding one against Perpetual Help. Unable to match up inside, the Pirates find the goings rough off both boards and simply do not have an inside game to speak of. They might bring up the rear this season.

Mapua: A team with an agile 6-foot-8 big man who played most of his life against American competition would be expected to be a lock for the Final 4. Not if that big man is Yousef Taha, a guy who routinely sulks whenever he does not get his touches, or even when he thinks the officials are out to get him. To the relief of head coach Chito Victolero he can still count on Ken Ighalo, Jonathan and Gabriel Banal and Josan Nimes to produce when Taha doesn't feel like playing ball. At the rate things are going though, .500 ball might be as good as it gets for these guys.

Perpetual Help: 70-year old Aric Del Rosario rebuilt UST into a UAAP powerhouse in the 1990's and was the mastermind of the 4-Peat era of the Glowing Goldies / Growling Tigers. It seems the Altas are hoping he will make some of that magic happen for them as their new head coach. He'll have some material to work with: guards Chris Elopre and Jet Vidal are among the best at their position in the NCAA. African imports Nosa Orogbe and Adefemi Babayene bring a good dose of athletic prowess to the roster, while Earl Thompson and Jeff Paulino strike as needed. This might be the year they make .500 again.

San Beda: San Beda will complete its second grand slam title run. Period.

San Sebastian: San Sebastian will fight San Beda for the Season 88 title. Period.

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