The Ateneo Blue Eagles and their Underdog DNA

By Eriko dela Cruz



un·​der·​dog ˈən-dər-ˌdȯg 

1: a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest

Safe to say, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are the underdogs in this series.

Prior to the finals showdown, Tab Baldwin addressed the elephant in the room; that his wards are not coming into the finals as the favorites.

“That Ateneo team in May had a lot more experience than this team, but I think this team has the DNA of underdogs, and I don’t think the team in May did.”

This quote set Twitter ablaze. UP fans were up in arms about calling the Blue Eagles underdogs, to the point where even the Blue Babble Battalion’s Brass Band was dragged into the conversation. Could it be possible? Could the team with an expat coach, a naturalized FSA, and friggin trumpets in the stands ever be the underdogs.

A lot of people have to understand, calling Ateneo underdogs in the finals does not mean they are a weak team. Making the finals every year with Coach Tab Baldwin at the helm is a feat no coach in the Final Four era has done. Ange Kouame, Dave Ildefonso, and Kai Ballungay in one team is a luxury a lot of teams would give a building in their university to have. The thing is, you have to put it in context of Ateneo vs UP alone.

But as good of a team Ateneo is, the UP Fighting Maroons are just that much better.

The UP Fighting Maroons are LOADED. Just when you think the starters are about to sit down, the bench will torment the opposing five just as hard, if not harder. Zavier Lucero, Henry Galinato, Harold Alarcon, and Cyril Gonzales backstopping Carl Tamayo, Malick Diouf, JD Cagulangan, and James Spencer is definitely an order of Mount Everest proportions. Ateneo’s bench isn’t as deep experience and skill-wise.

Outside of Ateneo’s starting five, the Blue Eagles bleed for points. Chris Koon is starting to be more consistent as a spark off the bench, but he alone is not enough to fill in when the starters are resting. Geo Chiu, Matthew Daves, and Josh Lazaro are all very useful, but you cannot expect them to score in bulk because they have specialized roles in the team. 

Coaching-wise, Coach Goldwyn Monteverde has proven to be a bigger thorn in the side of Tab Baldwin than Aldin Ayo. His coaching has translated very well from high school to college, winning in both levels. Aside from having his NU Bullpups as the core, recruits from all over the world complete their championship cast.

Eye tests and metrics indicate that the UP Fighting Maroons are the clear-cut favorites even before Game 1 started. The 72-66 victory against Ateneo solidified that, pushing them one game closer to repeating.

But basketball is not played in a statistics vacuum.



4: the emotional or moral nature as distinguished from the intellectual nature: such as

c: courage or enthusiasm especially when maintained during a difficult situation

Put your pitchforks down. The puso narrative has been used to oblivion, particularly by the Chot Reyes Gilas teams. If you try to play with just heart and nothing else, nine times out of ten the results will not come your way. 

But the Ateneo Blue Eagles have more than heart. Coach Tab Baldwin deserves to be in the pantheon of best coaches in the Philippines for his coaching genius. Ange Kouame is a legitimate case to be the best foreign student-athlete to ever play in the UAAP. Despite the obvious advantage that UP has, Ateneo has managed to make it a close game, and could have won had their shots fallen in. Safe to say, they have the weapons to try and win.

The first quarter of game 1 was probably the most telling quarter of the game. The Blue Eagles were caught flat-footed by the lineup adjustments by the Fighting Maroons. This dictated the direction of the game, as the Blue Eagles struggled to get their fingerprints in the game. The defense was elite, but the offensive system was checked by an equally-elite defense by UP.

The aggression that Ateneo brought in the second round needs to come back. They should not be taken aback by whoever starts for UP in game 2. If they decide to start with Zav Lucero and Henry Galinato again, they have to punish that lineup with Ange Kouame and Kai Ballungay’s height and skill. These two guys need to be more involved offensively and not rely on guard play. Both players have the skill to create off the dribble, or carve the space inside. Ange especially has an insane gravity that pulls defenders close to him, getting his teammates open.

Coach Tab needs to go out of his system a little bit. His systems work, but you cannot be rigid when you are being outmatched. A little space for creativity can be vital, especially when offense stalls. The equal opportunity offense that got Ateneo the three-peat in seasons 80-82 worked because of a deep lineup, but with the current team, it bodes well for them to focus on one to two main scorers. Sometimes, this is what servanthood is. Carrying the scoring load in order to give your team a chance at victory.

Dave Ildefonso has the offensive tools to open his teammates up. He is one of the best slashers in the league, and his gravity would be best suited to free up shooters waiting for him to dish. Of course, it also gives him an opportunity to attack the basket himself, and get some much-needed confidence boost. In the past two finals matchups against UP, people can see Dave struggle. But if he gets going, Ateneo has a better shot.

Statistics are a nice metric to show where things MIGHT go. But there are no guarantees. As mentioned earlier, Basketball is not played in a statistics vacuum. That is the beauty of basketball. No games are won on paper. You have to play the game to win. We have seen underdogs win games, and the UAAP is no exception. Yes. The Ateneo Blue Eagles are the underdogs. But not to a point that they have to beg just to win. With their season on the line, the Blue Eagles need that underdog DNA to show itself in the basketball court.

Team Captain and King Eagle BJ Andrade said it best: ‘Di pa tapos.

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