ATENEO-LASALLE: RIVALRY RETURNED
By Sam Miguel for Gameface.ph (as published in the homepage)
What makes a rivalry?
How about a good deal of animosity, brinkmanship, history and two colors that, ironically, when combined make up a color associated with whimpering, sniveling, fear?
After a year off the books the greatest rivalry in these beautiful islands will once again come to a head this Thursday, 26 July 2007.
Ateneo De Manila and De Lasalle will go to battle, the latest installment in what can only be described as the second-longest war in modern existence (the two Koreas take the dubious cake for longest, but I digress).
Lasalle has had it all over Ateneo ever since both schools made the jump from the storied NCAA to the then-fledgling UAAP over two decades ago. That’s a fine irony considering in the NCAA the two schools were not really rivals. San Beda and Ateneo were the hot and dirty rivals then, with the action spilling out of the court and even well into the bars and beer gardens of the day.
It was inevitable however that the two most expensive and most exclusive schools for boys would eventually cross paths, cross swords (figuratively) and yes, cross defenses on the basketball court. Lasalle has had more opportunities to bring home the annual bragging rights in UAAP basketball, having won more than twice as many titles as Ateneo, including an astounding four straight titles from 1998 – 2001 in the Don Allado-Renren Ritualo era. Lasalle also had a practically unbroken streak of wins against Ateneo in the decade of the 1990’s, during the so-called “dark ages” of Ateneo basketball.
Ateneo however has the edge in terms of head-to-head match ups in the Finals, having beaten Lasalle two (1988 and 2002) out of the three (Lasalle won in 2001) times they’ve met in the UAAP’s biggest stage.
So how do things look after a year?
Offense: Lasalle leads the league in scoring with over 84 points per game. Their transition game is unmatched thanks to the versatility and athleticism of all their players across the board. They also lead the league in team shooting percentage, and they can score on a variety of ways either in the open court or on the set up. Rico Maeirhofer is a double-double machine who rules the inside for Lasalle, together with tough new recruit Brian Ilad. JV Casio and TY Tang are two of the best outside shooters in the UAAP. Cholo Villanueva and James Mangahas fill it up wherever needed.
Ateneo on the other hand is groping for form after so-so wins against opening day assignment Adamson University and most recently against National University. Averaging barely 70 points per game as a team, and lacking any clear leader to show the way and lead their attack, Ateneo is having a hard time producing points consistently from anybody. Chris Tiu is supposed to be the King Eagle this season, but so far it has been the unspectacular Ford Arao who has been delivering the goods, at least up to the UE game.
Defense: It may not be the old full court press but it is still the Lasalle full court press, meaning it is still one of the toughest defenses to break. With quick and athletic veterans anchoring one of the most legendary defenses in college basketball it is small wonder Lasalle is also among the league leaders on defense. And just to keep things honest, Maeirhofer is among the best shot blockers in the UAAP.
Ateneo however is no slouch on defense, ranking among the best in team defense in terms of points allowed as well as opponent field goal shooting. Ateneo employs a total team effort on its defensive rotation, operating like clockwork on the extended foul line. Scampering quick guards like Eric Salamat, Eman Monfort and Ken Barracoso allow Coach Norman Black a lot of flexibility in defending the perimeter, a must in stopping any offense.
Post Players: Maeirhofer had a great off-season showing in all of the big non-UAAP tournaments, and he is on track for his first ever MVP award. He has improved a lot since coming in as a gangly forward-center some four years ago. Now he is a better-rounded player with a whole range of skills, able to operate in the post and away from it. He is one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the UAAP and is a superb athlete.
After him however the Lasalle frontline thins considerably. As experienced as Ilad is he is still a UAAP rookie who will make his share of mistakes in his first ever Ateneo-Lasalle game. PJ Walsham may be a veteran but he is basically a rotation player only. Kish Co is still a little undersized as a UAAP 5 and 4.
Arao and Raba Al Hussaini are two of the biggest players in the UAAP, and two of the best-coached classic back-to-the basket post players in the league. But they are not the big man All Stars of Ateneo teams past. Still, they work efficiently and their overall size and strength does not allow any team to take them lightly.
Helping them out in the frontline are UAAP returnee Jobe Nkemakolam and Visayan recruit Nonoy Baclao. Nkemakolam and Baclao are polar opposites In terms of build and playing style but are definitely more talented than Arao and Al Hussaini, and they have proven fearless regardless of the opposition with their relentless rebounding and physical defense.
Perimeter Players: This is where things swing drastically over to the green side. TY Tang, JV Casio, Cholo Villanueva, James Mangahas, PJ Barua and OJ Cua are a bunch of battle-tested and highly skilled players who can hurt opponents in a variety of ways. Tang has developed into one of the top three guards in the UAAP, and has gotten stronger and wiser; ditto Casio, whose overall game has improved considerably since coming in as a three-point specialist. Villanueva is at times the best player on a talented team with his guile and court smarts. Mangahas is having a career year.
Ateneo on the other hand is playing small ball in the backcourt over 80% of the time. While Monfort and Jai Reyes are deadeye shooters, it is painfully obvious that they are not real point guards, and neither is Salamat. Tiu and Barracoso carry the cudgels for Ateneo and they have been woefully inconsistent thus far. Rookies Kirk Long and Bacon Austria have size and some skill but may not see much time against the battle-tested Lasalle backcourt.
Outlook: Ateneo has not scared any one thus far in UAAP Season 70. Lasalle on the other hand, in spite of the setback against UE, is still one of the most feared and aggressive teams in the league. While they match up well on defense, Lasalle simply has much more weaponry than Ateneo on offense.
Ateneo is simply overmatched in the backcourt in terms of size and speed, a distinct liability against the fast and aggressive Lasalle press. Ateneo had a tough time breaking the UE and NU presses, what more Lasalle’s. And they are not going to stop Lasalle’s own backcourt men either.
Perhaps Ateneo’s best chance is to slow the game down and pound the ball into the post where they have an advantage in terms of size and depth. But to get that done the guards have to find a way to get around the Lasalle defense first, which once again puts the onus on the Blue Eagle guards.
We see a 14-17 point win by Lasalle with Ateneo making a game of it only in a few stretches.