Six games into Season 85 and the UAAP has been quite the entertaining mess. For every team that’s performed way below expectations *cough* FEU *cough*, there are surprising heroes that have emerged beyond their preseason rankings. The team that’s best exemplified that has been the NU Bulldogs.
Technically speaking, we probably shouldn’t have been *that* surprised about NU’s rise. They did win the Filoil Tournament, coming out on top over more popular teams like the UP Fighting Maroons and the De La Salle Green Archers, all while maintaining an unblemished record. But coming out with the first seed, with wins over UP and La Salle, has been quite the development nonetheless.
The burning question now is this: Are the NU Bulldogs legitimate championship contenders? Is this another case of a regular season darling that will crash and burn in the postseason, or are they legitimately a team to fear?
Let’s make a pros and cons list in the format of green flags and red flags.
Green Flag #1: His Name is Jeff
Aside from being a legendary courtside reporter, Jeff Napa is a winning coach. He’s won multiple titles in the Juniors Division. Fans have long respected his work, but they’ve been waiting for his talent to shine in the collegiate ranks. It took some time, with some bumpy roads in Letran, but finally, he’s starting to showcase his stuff with a deep roster.
The thing with Coach Jeff is, aside from being an intelligent tactician on the defensive end, he’s also a collegiate player’s dream coach. He’s a player’s coach through and through and it shows with how much buy in he’s received from his Bulldogs. They believe in themselves because he believes in them.
Having that type of leader matters. Coach Jeff Napa is that leader. He knows a thing or two about winning championships and that’s a good start to have with NU’s championship hopes.
Red Flag #1: Lack of Top-Level Talent
In the last seven seasons, every UAAP champion has had at least one Top 10-level player in its roster.
Season 77: Alfred Aroga, Troy Rosario
Season 78: Mac Belo
Season 79: Ben Mbala, Jeron Teng
Season 80: Thirdy Ravena
Season 81 – 82: Thirdy Ravena, Ange Kouame
Season 84: Carl Tamayo, Malick Diouf
This season’s NU Bulldogs don’t have a player that you can confidently say is Top 10-level. They have a very deep roster with good talent, but they lack a superstar they can rely on when the going gets tough. As good as Kean Baclaan is, he’s still very young and it shows. John Lloyd Clemente, Jake Figueroa, and Michael Malonzo are elite role players at best. Steve Nash Enriquez has the gago gene (trademark pending, credit to Ryan Alba), but he doesn’t match up as well compared to other basketball giants.
It’s a cliche and there are very limited stats that prove the value of a superstar-level player, but history doesn’t lie. More often than not, you really do need to have the best player possible to lead you when the going gets tough. Maybe they had that player three years ago. But right now, NU doesn’t have him.
Green Flag #2: Defense Wins Championships
This season’s NU team has reminded people of the Season 77 Bulldogs. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but the primary similarity between the two is how good they both are at defending basketball teams.
There are two key factors to this. First, Jeff Napa. He’s been a defensive savant as a coach ever since the High School days, and he’s brought over similar principles to the collegiate level. Second, and more critically, is their roster. To put it simply, they got dawgs.
Their roster is quite close to a modern defense’s dream. Their backcourt, while tiny, is gritty and intelligent. Their frontcourt has enough size and length to match the La Salle’s of the world. But their most unique quality is their forwards. Extremely versatile, athletic, and smart. They make life a living hell for offenses highly dependent on mismatch hunting. It’s so difficult to find mismatches in the first place because even if you catch their guards on an iso, their wings are so long and athletic that they can help without sacrificing too much.
Defense wins championships. The Bulldogs have an elite one at that. In a season as tight as this one, having that quality makes them an intriguing championship pick.
Red Flag #2: Winning Championships Requires Scoring
As important as defense is, you still need to score more points than the other team. The NU Bulldogs, while deep, don’t exactly have a lot of natural scorers in their roster. That could spell trouble for them come playoff time.
The NU Bulldogs, while elite defensively, aren’t even the best defensive team in the UAAP; that’s a title that goes to the UP Fighting Maroons. Logic dictates, whatever you lack on one end, you make up for on the other end, right? The Bulldogs don’t exactly have that kind of cushion given their lack of star power.
Kean Baclaan is the closest thing they have to a pure, natural creator, but he still makes silly mistakes that are unacceptable in playoff settings. Even Steve Nash Enriquez, gago gene and everything, lacks the creativity of a Terrence Fortea to create buckets in pressure moments.
Their forwards don’t do them any favors also. While good, they’re best suited as elite numbers twos. Nothing bad about being elite numbers twos. The thing is, to win a championship, you can just be the twos. You also need the ones. A championship team needs a Head of a Table and they lack one. And it’s what may prevent them from getting all the gold.
Truth be told, we can’t give a 100% certain answer, we’re not even halfway through the season once this piece releases. However, I’m willing to make two bets.
History dictates championship teams need a superstar to win. That pushes NU’s chances down by quite a lot.
But at the same time…
This is probably the most unpredictable season ever since Season 77. If there’s a time for NU to prove naysayers and historical context wrong, the time is now.