UAAP Final Four Preview: Will the real national university, please stand up?

Ladies and gentlemen, this December 7, a Wednesday afternoon, will be the first matchup of the UAAP Season 85 Final Four and it’s all set to be one heck of a fight. So let’s get to know the challengers.

Introducing first, out of the blue corner – a talented team of upstarts that anyone outside of a handful of fans gave a shot at making the Final Four. Coming in with a record of 9 wins and 5 losses placing them at the third seed, from Sampaloc, Manila, the National University Bulldogs.

In the red corner, a team that needs no introduction. Coming in with a record of 11 wins and 3 losses pacing them at the second seed, all the way from Diliman, Quezon City, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons.

The writer is coming off 16 hours of ONE Championship coverage last Saturday, so forgive the man. But let’s actually talk about the two teams now.

Elimination Round Summary

The NU Bulldogs making the Final Four is an absolute shock for most UAAP fans and I’ll admit I overlooked them on my personal rankings before the season began, opting to put in the DLSU Green Archers instead. But I can also admit that this team quickly won me over. NU is an extremely deep team that has different players leading the team in scoring almost every game, resulting in a surprising 5-2 start. The Bulldogs were made to have an extremely well-rounded team and it showed in their victories against DLSU, UP and UE in the first round and in their shock victory against Ateneo in the second round. Though they stumbled to a 4-3 record in the second round after struggles against Adamson, DLSU and UP, the Bulldogs have already made a statement and now have everyone’s attention.

The UP Fighting Maroons are the kings of the UAAP and their quality showed early and often. Terrence Fortea and Zavier Lucero were the stars of the show for UP after combining to lead the team in scoring in six games to start the season. The second round saw James Spencer’s breakout party against FEU while stars Carl Tamayo and Malick Diouf continued their run as the best players at their respective positions. This team had nothing to prove to the rest of the competition after winning their first title in 36 years last season, but UP is hungry for a back-to-back and no one can fault them for that goal. Yes, they suffered upset losses against Ateneo, DLSU and NU and that fact is not lost on them. Winners want to keep winning and that’s the only thing in their mind entering the Final Four.

What We Learned From Their Two Meetings:

The Bulldogs are versatile as all hell. In their first meeting, they pulled off the biggest upset of Season 85 after stunning the Fighting Maroons with an 80-75 victory which came off the backs of Omar John, Jhay Baclaan, John Figueroa and Steve Nash Enriquez (best name in the UAAP, don’t @ me) putting up double digits. UP’s offense stalled and you can credit that to NU’s non-stop press defense, generating 27 turnovers and converting it into 25 points of their own. Sharing the wealth is a big point of emphasis for coach Jeff Napa and this team is unafraid of giving everyone a chance to contribute. Everyone on this team knows their role and the game plan to a T and that makes them such an underdog of a team.

The Fighting Maroons know how to respond to tough losses. That’s why they’re the defending champions. UP took their lone first-round loss to heart and bounced back hard in their second matchup. Zavier Lucero continued to step up his game and led the way for UP while bench pieces Henry Galinato and Harold Alarcon continue to produce in their own ways. They were able to quickly address their turnover concerns when they limited it from 27 to just 14 in the rematch and won it by 12 points – a sign of the Fighting Maroons’ championship caliber. Anyone who says that UP is cooked after losing to the Ateneo Blue Eagles is talking nonsense ahead of the Final Four is taking the piss.

What Will Each Team Rely On:

Flexibility and not in the “I can do the Kapotasana yoga pose” sense. Look, the Bulldogs won’t blow you away with fancy highlight reel moments because that’s not their style. However, they will definitely make you feel them on every single play on both offense and defense. They are not the tallest team in the UAAP by any stretch, but coach Napa can plug and play his wards into practically any position. Enriquez dropping dimes like his namesake, John Lloyd Clemente doing JLC things, Germy Mahinay doing his best Regirock impression and everyone being absolutely capable of getting buckets. No one on this team is afraid of contact and it’s extremely hard to try and punk them, so you might as well not try. NU doesn’t heavily rely on one single star to run their team and that’s what makes them such a credible threat to UP. Everyone is a danger and the Fighting Maroons can ill afford to underestimate them.

It would be negligent of me not to mention how important Omar John’s matchup with Malick Diouf will be. Diouf had a tough time matching up with the Buldogs big man as he only had seven points on a horrible 3-of-8 shooting night despite being a plus-13 for the Fighting Maroons. What’s even more curious is that he had an extremely tough time against John in the second matchup after only making 2-of-6 shots with a team-low minus-10. John was a plus-6 and plus-2 respectively which seems to indicate that he has the back-to-back MVP’s number going into their matchup. He’s just a massive force inside the paint with a massive wingspan to boot and he can make shots if given enough space to do so. The numbers don’t lie and they spell disaster for UP if they can’t find out how to help Diouf break free from John’s defense.

It’s honestly tempting to say star power for the Fighting Maroons, but what gives them over the edge is championship experience. It’s cliché as hell, but it just rings true for the Diliman-based squad. One does not simply become a champion by getting a lucky knockout blow from the left wing in the finals (last ONE reference, promise). UP scratched and clawed their way to a finals berth and continued to wear their hearts on their sleeves during Season 85’s eliminations because that’s their identity. Matatapang. Matatalino. Walang takot kahit kanino. Add in the fact that guys like Zavier Lucero, James Spencer, Harold Alarcon and RC Calimag are putting in the work to support their core of Carl Tamayo, Malick Diouf and Terrence Fortea, and you have a team that’s poised for another championship.

For the Fighting Maroons to succeed, Season 84 Rookie of the Year Carl Tamayo needs to put on a show. As I’ve mentioned above, the two big men are likely to cancel each other out which leaves another opening for Lucero to put up big numbers like in their previous matchups. But if I was in coach Goldwyn Monteverde’s shoes, I’d draw up every play for Tamayo. There’s a reason that everyone sees him as the future of the UAAP (and possibly of Philippine basketball abroad) and it’s his skills. He can afford to take some time off the defensive end of the ball since he has guys to back him up there, however, it’s the Final Four. The greats always come out to play then and Tamayo has to start acting like the big dog having a couple of Bulldogs in his yard. UP has to find a game plan that will give Tamayo the space he needs to operate and possibly dominate.

Grab your popcorn and keep your eyes peeled on this No. 2 versus No. 3 matchup, because an upset is definitely possible. So, UAAP fans…

HERE. WE. GO. (I lied.)

PREDICTION: NU wins, 69-68.

NU wins their first meeting by a narrow margin, UP retaliates with a massive statement victory to advance to the finals.

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