Palawan, the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Men’s Basketball Tournament is scheduled to open on September 4, 2019, at the Araneta Coliseum. Most of the teams have stockpiled assets over the summer to beef up their roster with new foreign recruits and a slew of one and done collegiate athletes who have played varsity ball in the United States or locally outside of the UAAP.

The one and done players are a bi-product of the Troy Rike rule allowing teams to recruit players who have graduated and completed their 4-year college eligibility from other leagues. My hunch is that teams are investing in these players to climb the Mount Everest built by the Ateneo Blue Eagles and personified in man-giant 7 foot Center Angelo Kouame.

The Ateneo roster is very much intact and solid with Kouame, the Nieto brothers Mike and Matt, Tyler Tio and of course, Thirdy Ravena but let’s take a closer look at the team who has fallen one game short of winning ‘em all last season: The resurgent UP Fighting Maroons.

UP has lost Paul Desiderio, Jarrell Lim, Gelo Vito and Diego Dario due to graduation but the much-anticipated debut of high profile players Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras is more than enough to compensate. We project UP to have a solid starting unit in Jun Manzo and Juan Gomez De Llano manning the backcourt, Bright Akhuetie (6’7 tower of power at center) along with Rivero and Paras at the forward line. That starting unit to me is of D-League caliber but have they managed to build bench depth to solidify their rotation?

The Maroons would still have holdovers Javi Gomez De Llano, Noah Webb, Felix Jaboneta, David Murrell and big man Will Gozum. A one and done player from Cebu’s University of San Jose Recoletos program, Jaybie Mantilla is also recruited to provide solid quality back up at the point position. Easily, the Maroons are 10-11 man deep. Is that depth, however, enough to supplant the Ateneo Blue Eagles or even to compete against a souped-up La Salle roster, beefed up by 3 one and done Fil Ams?

Ateneo’s giant, Kouame, forced teams to beef up down low with UE securing the services of Adama Diakhite, a 6’9 discovery from Diliman College, which makes them a dark horse this season. I managed to watch a summer league game with Adama still donning the Diliman jersey and he can dominate the paint. He could potentially be a good match up to Kouame but keep in mind that with coach Tab Baldwin’s system, Kouame may have learned more post moves and may have developed an outside shot already.

At the very least, yours truly sees a final four finish for the Maroons. It would be a tight semis. I expect, based on summer league play and off-season build-up, that the Ateneo, UP, Adamson (the coach Franz Pumaren’s UAAP formula of success), and La Salle as the top 4 favorites with NU, UE, UST and FEU capable of unseating any of the top 4. Conditioning and injuries may become a factor down the stretch which could spell the difference between a top 4 finish and elimination.

I am certain the coaching staff of the UP Maroons headed by Coaches Bo Perasol and Ricky Dandan will learn from last year’s Bright Akhuetie injury in Game 2 of the finals vs the Ateneo so pacing and managing Bright’s workload is key so the back up bigs of the Maroons should hold up the fort to ensure optimal performance of their foreign import down the stretch. Let’s face it, in the UAAP today, an import should be guarding an import. The local bigs would easily have a 3-4 inch height disadvantage and at least 20 lbs downside against the foreign recruits but lucky for the Maroons, the zone defense can spell good quality rest minutes for Bright.

The Maroons have more scoring punch this year. We have seen the emergence of Juan Gomez De Llano as a solid guard contributor who will only be more effective since defenses will also focus on the Rivero and Paras wing tandem. Bright can be of service when the Maroons need points down low but can also help rebound the misses by their guards or wings.

Manzo and Mantilla, the point guard pair, will be key in executing the plays for the Maroons. They don’t need to score as we know that 80% of the production will come from Juan GDL, Kobe, Ricci, and Bright. They need to control the tempo of the game, run it slow when protecting the lead or driving a potentially exciting fluid offensive running style by sheer athleticism of their wingmen.

Paras will play power forward on defense and the Maroons will play a 4 by 1 high and low offense because Bright would need the space to operate the paint.

With a deep line up, the Maroons can adapt Adamson’s defensive full-court press a lot more than last season. Bright and Paras will help protect the rim if an opponent managed to break the trap. Offensively and defensively, the Maroons are set. Would that guarantee a championship they last won in 1986? We all know execution, consistency, and discipline will play a critical factor for the Maroons. They have a good chance to win ‘em all this year but they definitely need to scale the Great Man Wall of the Ateneo.

(The writer is a senior leader in the Business Process Outsourcing industry managing Philippine countryside operations)