Collegiate basketball is one of the most unpredictable sports to follow as a casual fan. For one, unlike in professional basketball, most rosters change every single year. Since these are college athletes, they have, at most, just four years with their schools before they inevitably graduate. Certain circumstances also have some players leave before their four-year term is up.
Because of that, college basketball dynasties are pretty rare. Even a championship-caliber team isn’t always assured of winning the chip next year. Their star players might graduate, or some may seek greener pastures elsewhere. But one UAAP team has defied all the odds, and somehow maintained its perfect form even after the departure of its core: the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles.
The story of Ateneo’s Season 82 run is one that has been told many times. After capturing the chip in Season 81, the Blue Eagles went on a rampage, going undefeated in the double-round robin round. That eventually gave them an outright Finals berth, where they handily stomped the upstart UST Growling Tigers in two straight games.
There were some questions surrounding that team after the season, though. Most of the notable names from their championship run were set to graduate after Season 82. Isaac Go, Mike and Matt Nieto, and Thirdy Ravena all left the team after that season. Without the majority of their core, fans wondered: just how good can this Ateneo team be in the next season?
The answer: Pretty damn good. The team maintained their strong form at the start of Season 84, going 13-0 in the group stages again. They did drop their final game against another contender in UP, but that doesn’t take away from their excellent regular season. The key to their success, according to Angelo Kouame, is the “Ateneo culture.”
“You see the way how people invest in themselves, especially during practice and also on the court. It’s more about the culture and how they really want you to represent the school,” he told SLAM Philippines.
Kouame also credits coach Tab Baldwin for their success this season. The Blue Eagles star points to their coach keeping them grounded amid their torrid success in the UAAP.
“For him, you always have to respect the game, no matter who you face, ‘respect your opponent no matter who it is.’ That’s a mentality he always brought since I first met him. We try to live up to the standard he put on us,” Kouame said.
Aside from losing their kuyas, another thing that hindered Ateneo prior to this season was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Season 83 was suddenly halted due to the pandemic, and it wasn’t until December last year that teams were permitted to have face-to-face practices together.
So how did the Blue Eagles keep themselves in tip-top shape during the pandemic? Well, with a little virtual help from their mentors… and a trip to Belgrade for a couple of guys.
“We used to have to send videos to the group [chat] to show the workout you do at home, [to see if] the coaches will rectify your movements. And then luckily, some of the players from the team were able to play for Gilas, so we had a couple of runs during that time that really helped us,” Kouame said.
Kouame, SJ Belangel, and Dave Ildefonso were among the players who were called up to the Philippine national team during the pandemic. The experience clearly had a big impact on Kouame, who got to play against NBA-caliber talent such as Boban Marjanovic. Watching the young Blue Eagles star hold his own against the giants of the world was exhilarating for Philippine basketball fans.
You can see how much that experience changed him this season. Talking to him, you can tell there’s an air of confidence around him. He knows what he’s capable of and that he can always bring it whenever it’s needed. It’s not the cocky kind of confidence, it’s an aura of self-assuredness, knowing that he can go out there and make a difference for the team.
“Even if the opponent is going on a 12-0 run, there’s no panic from them, they’re figuring things out without panicking. That’s the thing I actually learned from them,” he said.
Kouame has been one of the front-runners for the MVP award this season, and for good reason. The Ateneo Blue Eagles star has been a devastating force against other teams, as it’s become increasingly hard to contain him. His renewed focus on dominating the paint, as well as his stellar defense, makes him the perfect new star to build around in the UAAP.
However, this season hasn’t come without troubles for Kouame. With their core moving on to the pros, Kouame has now become one of the kuyas of the team, someone the younger players can lean on. However, Kouame admits that he’s still trying to grasp the ins and outs of being the “veteran” of the team.
“It’s kind of like, ‘This is your time now to be that person for another generation so they can learn from you and be an example.’ I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes, we have a bad game, and they are the ones that pick me up instead of me picking me up. I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s a process,” he said.
With the Season 84 regular season in the books, the Blue Eagles are ready for the Finals. Despite being favored to win it all, there is still a roadblock blocking their path. They’re up against a UP team on a mission.
The Blue Eagles are prepared for it. True to their coach’s mentality, Kouame is laser-focused on their goal of winning their fourth consecutive championship, no matter who they face in the path to glory.
“Anything can happen, we try to be prepared for anybody. It’s just that, you know, we go in there and be yourself, and then play the game that we love and enjoy.”