Palawan, if we are keenly watching the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines’ (UAAP) basketball games,  then chances are you didn’t miss the Ateneo – University of the Philippines match up last Sunday.  The Battle of Katipunan, The Blue Eagles vs The UP Fighting Maroons, coach Tab Baldwin (Ateneo) vs coach Bo Perasol (UP), The Eagles against Kobe Paras … whatever side story or match up the title you wanna make, the last game of the 2019 UAAP first-round eliminations promised to have playoff atmosphere basketball … or at least we thought it would.

Yes, the cheering was deafening, every basket made merited loud blasts and cheers from the stands but was the game a tight one enough to merit a good score on our expectations bar chart?  I honestly believe that it fell short by leaps and bounds.

The Ateneo dominated the 2nd ranked UP from front to end in a masterful 89-63 win to keep their slate spotless at 7 wins – 0 losses.  The Blue Eagles were solid as the local crew complimented the game long brilliance of 7’0 center Angelo Kouame who simply got the better of the UP bigs including Bright Akhuetie.

One thing that I admire Tab Baldwin and the Ateneo coaching staff is that they create new plays and develop new weapons for their players year after year.  Has anyone noticed that Kouame now has a 3 point arm?  That was obviously developed during the offseason.  Practically every Ateneo player can shoot the 3, a Euro-style basketball suitable for international play.  It still is mind-boggling to me why coach Tab isn’t tapped for Team Gilas Pilipinas yet.  I think there are still ongoing discussions and that he is still in the running for the long term post vacated by former National Team coach Yeng Guiao (Tim Cone’s Gilas stint is but a one and done deal just for the SEA Games).

Another strong point of the Ateneo coaching staff is that they tweak their plays on both ends of the court based on the opponents’ strengths or weaknesses.  Against UP, Ateneo deployed a 1-3-1 old school zone defense that caught UP off guard.  The 1-3-1 zone is hardly used anymore but is very effective in neutralizing teams whose offense evolves at the 3 point area.  The Blue Eagles were quick in rotating to the UP shooters and on the event that Fighting Maroon cuts in with the ball, guess what, they had to deal with a 7’0 agile big man clogging the lane.

Their team is built over a robust passing and running game backed by full-court traps and a zone defense that adjusts based on how opponents react.  It was sheer domination of the game last Sunday.  So frustrated were the Maroons coaching staff that even Head Coach Bo Perasol blew his top in the third quarter causing him to be ejected from the game.

The Ateneo got this round 100%.  There is no doubt that they are still solid favorites to retain this year’s diadem.  It is up to the Maroons and all the other contenders to figure out what to do to slow the Eagles onslaught in the second round.

Licking Their Wounds

So it’s now time for the UP Maroons, all the other UAAP teams, to review what could have been after the first round of play.   Based on what I saw during the Battle of Katipunan, there are some opportunities coach Bo and his coaching staff need to improve on:

– Feed the ball down low:  it seems the post hasn’t used that match in the first round.  It’s been a Juan Gomez De Liano, Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero show from the perimeter.  UP needs to give the reigning MVP more touches to get him to pound the opposition inside early to give the guards and wings some space when the teams double up on Bright

– Akhuetie has lost some lift on his jump.  Not sure what happened here but Bright is just averaging less than 2 blocks per game for a guy who stands 6’6.  Some midseason jump and power drills should help slim him down a little to get that second jump back

– Switch Juan GDL as the starting point guard.  That will make opponents adjust to the Maroons in the second round.  Jun Manzo, as solid and as capable as he is, is now becoming a predictable starter.  No harm in alternating him and Juan to give the Maroons different guard looks in the second round

– Let Kobe continue to be Kobe.  Dominate the game

– Try a bigger combination inside a little bit more.  At times UP has fielded Juan GDL, Bright, Javi GDL, Paras and Ricci Rivero together.  They need more time with this combination on the floor when games matter most

– More teeth on defense.  Learn from Ateneo blue-collar defense.  That’s somewhat missing in some games of UP this year

I am sure coaches Aldin Ayo, Franz Pumaren, and The La Salle coaching staff, 3 other contenders for the final 4 this year, are all tweaking their plays to adapt to the Ateneo threat.  If they all wanna win it this year, they’ve got to go through Tab Baldwin and the Eagles and we all know, it’s not going to be easy.

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