The landscape of UAAP Season 85 has three teams practically locked for the top three seeds of the Final Four. Defending champions UP, Ateneo, and La Salle solidified their positions as top contenders during the pre-season. This leaves one more seat in the playoffs to be contested among teams that have made vast improvements in their own rights.
Far Eastern University Tamaraws – Standing firm and defending their ground
Last season the Tamaraws narrowly escaped a gridlock for the 4th spot, winning just one more game than rivals Adamson and NU. It looks like they have their work cut out for them in defending their spot at the Final Four, because while their rivals have re-tooled and improved, they’ve lost a huge talent to the call of the pros.
The previous holder of the 4th spot in the UAAP, the FEU Tamaraws will need to continue to live up their reputation of consistency. The team led by Coach Olsen Racela may have lost a key piece in RJ Abarrientos going pro, but still has plenty of talent to go around with the likes of LJay Gonzales, Xyrus Torres and Royce Alforque.
Ever a contender, FEU continued to show their strong foundations, scoring a big win over DLSU in the Fil-Oil Pre-season Tournament to march into the Finals. By sheer consistency in the program and the reliable guidance of Coach Olsen, the Tamaraws have a good chance at defending their spot in the Final Four and possibly going further, depending on how far their latest addition to super guards, LJay “Speedy” Gonzales takes them.
National University Bulldogs – the meteoric rise of a program
It was evident last season that Coach Jeff Napa was doing wonders for this NU squad. Despite losing sensational scorer Dave Ildefonso the season prior, Coach Jeff rebuilt the program into one that had as much bite as it had bark, improving on their winning more games than they did with the young Ildefonso and never looking back from his departure.
With John Lloyd Clemente leading the way, the NU Bulldogs won the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup, going undefeated all throughout. A testament to their meteoric rise in the collegiate ranks is the fact that, in order to accomplish their championship run, they had to beat the likes of the Adamson Soaring Falcons, FEU Tamaraws and even the defending UAAP champion UP Fighting Maroons.
Clemente won’t be alone in attempting to translate their preseason success into the UAAP, with John Figueroa and Germy Mahinay in tow. This team is definitely one to look out for as Coach Jeff Napa has instilled in them a system that can give any team a run for their money. The Bulldogs are on a quick and steady rise as of late, and only time will tell if they have improved enough to earn them a spot in the Final Four.
Adamson Soaring Falcons – slow and steady takeoff
The arrival of Coach Nash Racela was a time of rediscovery for the Adamson Soaring Falcons. On the one hand, it marked the end of the Franz Pumaren era, a rebirth of sorts for the program, a re-entry into the Final Four and to mainstream relevance in college basketball. On the other, it sparked a new age of Adamson basketball helmed by one of the best tactical minds in college sports. The result has been a steady resurgence fueled behind slowly but surely buying-in to the brand of basketball that Coach Nash Racela used to not only capture the title in S78, but to develop basketball talents that are now flourishing in the professional ranks.
Unlike the NU Bulldogs, the rise in trajectory for the Soaring Falcons has not been as explosive. Instead it was a slow burn marked by a turbulent first round in Season 84, a slow build-up to a big win against eventual champion UP in the second round. Unfortunately the Soaring Falcons were not able to recover from the first round hole they dug themselves, seeing them miss the playoffs by just one game.
For Season 85, aside from playing host, the Falcons are gunning for a historic run behind the back of their super guard Jerom Lastimosa. With “clutch gene” written all over his game, Jerom has been on the forefront of the Falcons’ resurgence as of late, delivering exciting late game heroics against UP in the UAAP, as well as in the FilOil Tournament, and in the Kadayawan invitational tournament which the Falcons won.
Despite having a superstar in Lastimosa, the Falcons have been working on living life without him, emphasizing ball movement and teamwork above all, getting points from Cedrick Manzano, Didat Hanapi and Joem Sabandal. Balance is key, but it doesn’t help that they have ready points of attack.
Bolstering their ranks are returnees AP Manlapaz and Aaron Fermin who both sat out Season 84 due to injuries. Together with the growth under the Racela system and the re-infusion of talent, the Soaring Falcons will definitely make a run for that Final Four spot.