To Thrive or Die: The FEU Tamaraws are nearing the tipping point

By Pio Garcia

The Far Eastern University Tamaraws’ season has been one hell of a roller coaster ride. It’s like you were not sure which FEU team will show up for the jump ball: will it be the team that fulfills its scary potential from its touted recruits or will it be the infuriating ISO-ball team that has its… Tamaraw heads in front of headlights?

The young Tams have a tough task ahead of them in the Final Four, where they will meet Ateneo for the fifth time in six seasons (78, 79, 80, 81, 84). But how can they stack up against a methodical and consistent Blue Eagles squad when we don’t know which FEU will even show up?

The Tams have made us both gush in delight when they have their collective abilities harnessed and cry in anguish and frustration when they seemingly can’t muster an ounce of a set play to save their lives on the hardcourt against foes they should be crushing with ease.

We will have to admit that on paper, the Tams actually look good, great even, with their plethora of ball hawkers, shooters, and role players that can actually make a team shake in its pants. However, basketball will never be played on paper and if you can’t translate that to made baskets, then tough luck.

Imagine having a guard rotation of LJay Gonzales, Royce Alforque, Bryan Sajonia, Xyrus Torres, and Gilas standout RJ Abarrientos.  That’s a coach’s pipedream. A well-balanced guard rotation where each component perfectly complements whoever they are paired with save for an Alforque-Sajonia no offense backcourt. We’ve seen these boys grow up and move up from the juniors division, with FEU being one of the solid juniors-to-seniors elevation programs next to UAAP juggernaut Ateneo.

While RJ Abarrientos owns the season-high for points scored in a single game this season, the rookie has been inconsistent at times and despite leading the Tams in scoring (13.6 points per game), he has not shot the ball well from downtown, sitting at an ungodly 31.5%, and even in terms of overall field goal percentage at 32%. On the flipside, Xyrus Torres (10.6 points per game) has shot the three extremely well at 42.8% but could not maintain that level of accuracy when he is forced to put the ball down and manufacture his own shot, with a sub-30% output each game.

Now, Abarrientos and Torres are pretty much the barometers for this Tams iteration of Olsen Racela as their shooting opens up defenses, forcing them to extend their coverage, especially in horns attacks and high pick and roll situations. When the defenses open up, that’s when their best ball handler in LJay Gonzales can pounce on the open lanes for high percentage shots game in and game out. And those have been scarce to say the least when both gunners are misfiring from range, which happens quite often, unfortunately.

Another worrisome attribute that we have observed with the Tams throughout the season is their propensity to run ISO sets for RJ and LJay, relying on their talent and athleticism to put the ball in the hoop. With the lack of a true post option, it is quite understandable why the offense is run as such. However, all things considered, wouldn’t it be better if both Abarrientos and Gonzales are handed scoring opportunities when they are going downhill while the defense is forced to backpedal and unbalanced? Just a thought.

Against Ateneo, it’s almost impossible to tell Abarrientos and Torres to keep it locked and loaded with the Blue Eagles defensive scheme running them off the three-point line in their two meetings this season. They’d rather make the Tams beat them with contested middies and layups than letting them get hot from downtown.

But while the Tamaraw guard agency bears the brunt of the offensive workload, FEU’s frontline also needs to show up. Of their available forwards and lone center in Emman Ojoula (9.7 points per game, 11.5 rebounds per game), no one is averaging more than four points a game nor pulling more than three rebounds a game. Alforque and Gonzales are hauling in 5.5 and 5.7 boards and they’re supposed to be the ones receiving the outlet pass to jumpstart their offense. 

Ojoula may be getting gaudy rebound stats despite being ground-bound but he terribly needs help upfront as he will be fed a steady diet of Ange Kouame, Raffy Verano, Matthew Daves, and even Josh Lazaro to some extent. Rey Bienes needs to show up as he’s the lone notable frontline holdover from Season 82, while the Tams continue to reel from lack of depth upfront with Cholo Anonuevo still unavailable to them.

While they have their work totally cut out for them against the defending champions, who are probably smarting from their recent loss, we need the good FEU to show up and make things a little more exciting, per fans’ clamor. Abarrientos and Gonzales both need to cut down on the iso attempts if they want a shot at the twice to beat disadvantage. It has been the Tamaraws’ Achilles heel this year as they have a tendency to just let either one work the ball for 17 seconds before settling for an ill-advised shot to beat the buzzer.

Beating the defending champions may seem like a longshot and Mac Belo is surely not walking through that damn door for a last-second tip-in against the Blue Eagles, but the least we can have is a fight from the Tamaraws and show why their guard rotation is the scariest we’ve seen this side of Ateneo’s own rotation.

Give us the fireworks and make sure this return of the Final Four is worth it against two-storied champion schools that have pretty much been the cream of the crop when it comes to running actual successful basketball programs from the Juniors level up to the Seniors.

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