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In Your Face!

USTe is Really Going

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Whenever I look back on the preseason predictions I could just slap my self silly. I was one of the fools who just plain dismissed Santo Tomas as a Final 4 contender, thinking that the loss of Aljon Mariano would mean there was simply even less talent available for a team that already struggled last season.

Lo and behold the Growling Tigers of our beloved Bchoter are sharing the top of the standings with Far Eastern at 5-1, and may yet wind up at the top after the first round of eliminations.

So why the disconnect? How could I have gotten them so wrong?

As with most bad calls this one started with wrong assumptions.

Assumption 1: Aljon Mariano's departure means an even less talented team.

As good as Mariano is, as vital as he was to the two trips to the Finals for UST in the last three years, he clearly was equal parts good news and bad news for the Tigers. That infamous bad decision he made in their Finals against De La Salle in 2013 will forever etch him in UAAP lore. Mariano may have been a legit college star, but his decision-making was never his strong suit. That one bad decision in the 2013 Finals might have cost UST a championship. It most certainly cost Mariano's reputation as a player. Even some UST fans questioned whatever possessed him on that play.

Without Mariano on this year's team that ball has been whipping around a lot more quickly. Even the ball-reversal is moving better. Mariano was one of those players that needs to fondle the ball a bit before making a move, a real tempo killer. With him gone, the ball moves better, and more opportunities are given to the likes of Ed Daquioag, Louie Vigil, Mario Bonleon, and even Jon Sheriff and Marvin Lee. (More on those guys later.)

Assumption 2: UST cannot win without MVP numbers from Karim Abdul.

Over six games, the 6'5" UST import has put in lower numbers across almost the entire board compared to his numbers last season. He is currently scoring nearly five points less, and getting almost two less rebounds per game compared to his Season 77 averages. Come to it, these are his lowest numbers in the five seasons he has been in the league. And yet at around this same time last season they were not even at .500, while they are sharing the lead in the standings right now.

Of course it would be even better news for UST if Abdul would get back to being his usual dominating self. He is clearly not in 100% game shape. He has gotten beaten to spots he used to own, has had rebounds taken from him that he used to collar easily, and has allowed one too many baseline plays get by him. Still, UST is winning, and it should be only a matter of time before he gets back into game shape. When that happens expect the Tigers to get an extra gear or two leading up to the playoffs.

Assumption 3: UST does not have reliable support for their stars.

UST normally starts Abdul, Kevin Ferrer, Vigil, Daquioag, and Sheriff. So far their significant bench contributors have consisted of Lee, Bonleon, Kent Lao, Zach Huang, Jeepy Faundo, and during the La Salle game, former UP Fighting Maroon Kyle Suarez.

Most fans know and expect production from the likes of Abdul, Ferrer, Daquioag, and maybe a little something from Vigil and Sheriff. Move on over to the UST bench and the same fans know and expect very little. This I think is where my most epic failure lies. And it starts with Vigil.

I was always a bit of a Vigil fan when he was a Jose Rizal Light Bomber, even bringing him to try out for the Ateneo about five years ago. When he wound up in UST after an aborted stint with La Salle my opinion of him diminished in direct proportion to each pound of bad weight he gained. Now however he has become a vital cog for the Tigers, providing timely baskets in support of Ferrer and Daquioag. His numbers are actually down from the previous season, but the quality of his baskets seems to have improved. He had timely hits in their big victory against FEU, their comeback against the Ateneo, and in their blowout against La Salle as well.

Bonleon, who was previously with University of the East, has also been surprising, also coming through with quality baskets. He has even been running with purpose on both ends and defending well. His best lockdown effort was against reigning MVP Kiefer Ravena, when UST overhauled a 16-point deficit to emerge with a 10-point victory.

Lee and Sheriff have had their share of blunders at the pointguard spot, but they have certainly helped more than hurt. Neither demands the ball, nor do they look for their own offense, and they can make the occasional kick-out shot. Suddenly the odd man out is Renzo Subido.

Lao and Faundo have provided toughness inside, rebounds, the occasional basket, and have generally done everything their coach has asked them to do. Part of the reason Abdul's unusually low production has not really hurt that much is that these two have done a yeoman's job as the "bigs" off the UST bench.

Assumption 4: UST's stars cannot really carry their team.

Kevin Ferrer was named the UAAP Player of the Week. He scored 27 points on a million three-pointers when he personally led the charge for his Tigers against the Ateneo over the weekend. He followed that up last night by tossing in 17 points to overhaul a 14-point La Salle lead and turn that into a rout for his Gold, Black, and White side. "This is Kevin Ferrer. You can't question his heart," said his head coach Bong Dela Cruz after their win over the Ateneo. Oh, and Ferrer had flu-like symptoms during that game, so yes, that was his flu game.

Ed Daquioag was also Player of the Week two weeks ago. He got that after that stirring cardiac game versus FEU, where he just about scored at will against the entire Tamaraw perimeter defense, and even challenged their front line to stop his drives. "Ed's confidence is very high, and he is enjoying the game," remarked Dela Cruz in one interview.

Ferrer and Daquioag are in their final years and of course want to go out in style. Vigil and Bonleon are also rather long in the tooth as college players. That's four guys who know how to play and are already veterans in the league. Skill and experience are irreplaceable when it comes time to win.

So UST clearly has at least two elite players with an import who has yet to play his usual game, and good support coming from unexpected sources.

The challenge for the Tigers now is of course to keep this up all the way to the end. Knocking on wood, one injury to any of their Top 3 players is all it would take to derail the entire Espana Train. The real Abdul also needs to show up in the second round, and their pointguards need to stop acting like they are just happy to be part of all this.

I'll go out on a limb and say UST can contend for one of the two twice-beat spots, IF they all stay healthy.
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  1. bchoter's Avatar
    I'm most surprised with Embon's defense. A player who never met a shot he didn't like, i expected him to go all out on offense and cruise on the other end. Aside from Kiefer, other stars who played sub par vs Embons include Jeron, Alolino, and Tolomia, virtual who's who for S78.

    Marvin Lee is also a revelation. Unheralded out of HS, he even got lesser attention comoared to the PGs that passed through España: SBC's Diputado (a shoo-in who suddenly disappeared only to resurface with Bulldogs ateam B in the FMC), anither cub, Decapia, Former squire Gedaria, LSGH's RP youth mainstay Michael Dela Cruz, LSGH's other PG (forgot his name) to name a few. He has become UST's first PG off the bench and his entry has coincidenceded with UST's surge in the games vs ADMU and DLSU. He's pesky on defense, outting up a grest first line of defense against penetrations in UST's 1-3-1 zone D. And he has provided bonus points as well

 
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