Ateneo’s title defense begins with their new-look defense

Under Coach Tab Baldwin, the Blue Eagles have evolved into a mean, sometimes boring death machine that takes away a team’s soul in the slowest way possible. They aren’t like the Warriors who blitz you with three-pointers or the 2011-2014 Miami Heat who overwhelmed you with their athleticism.

The Blue Eagles have been the most cerebral college basketball team for three years now, chopping down defenses with an offense so cohesive even pro teams are having a hard time defending it. 

To start Season 82 however, Ateneo’s offense has actually been sub-par compared to previous seasons. They’ve only been shooting 34.18 percent from the field while making only 15.87 percent from beyond the arc. Their assist to turnover ratio (17:14.5) also leaves much to be desired, as they’ve been committing a bunch of careless turnovers versus Adamson and La Salle. Coach Tab couldn’t help but notice this as well.

“We shot the ball very poorly, our offensive cohesion isn’t anything like it needs to be,” Coach Tab said after their game against La Salle. “I’m pretty disappointed in that, I think that’s a reflection of me as much as anything else and it’s gotta be fixed.”

Yet, they still beat both the Soaring Falcons and Green Archers by an average of 15 points. Despite Coach Tab’s apprehensions about Ateneo’s offensive execution, the Blue Eagles remain the most inevitable force in the UAAP. Ateneo’s offense has determined their ceiling, but it’s their defense that’s been holding their floor as they try to figure out their offense early on in the season.

“But again, overall, the defense was tough,” said Coach Tab. “It was aggressive.”

As the cliche goes, “Defense wins championships.” And that’s the weapon that may be what catapults Ateneo to a three-peat by the end of the season.

As it is, the types of shots Ateneo takes are often high-variance. They’ve taken the second-most threes in the league with 63 attempts. The problem is, however, they’ve only made 10 out of those 63 attempts. Make no mistake about it, most of Ateneo’s shots from deep have been clean attempts. Their offense consisting of hand-offs and pick-and-roll actions are built to get open looks from beyond the arc. To not take those clean looks would be a criminal offense for Coach Tab. It just so happens, they aren’t making those shots now.

So what the Blue Eagles have been doing to offset this is by playing aggressive defense. Note the word: aggressive. Ateneo has been identified to be a program that’s conservative with its coverage. That hasn’t been the case this season, as most of the Blue Eagles have been flying (*ba dum tss*) around the court, going for blocks and even steals despite the risk of losing man-to-man coverage. 

These are gambles, yes. “Sundot nga ako ng sundot eh!” said Gian Mamuyac while laughing. But Coach Tab wouldn’t agree to his team just gambling without purpose. Instead, what Ateneo has been doing is to implement smart gambles with its defense. It’s a testament to the long relationship he’s had with his players and this program.

“He trusts us. If he didn’t, you’d see him react, but he seems to trust us,” said Isaac Go. Even their gambles are fueled by knowledge. “Just principles. Coach Tab feels that we may have an advantage there, so we’re just doing it.”

While Ateneo has always preached team play, the advantage Isaac mentioned has actually come mostly from one player. “Mayroon kaming Ange. We all know how great of a rim protector he is, so if we gamble, may sasalo naman sa amin,” said Mamuyac. “While he’s out there, that makes your defense pretty tough,” added Coach Tab Baldwin.

Ange Kouame has been nothing short of spectacular on defense this season. It’s easy to point to his 5.5 blocks (which would lead the league in blocks) or his 15 rebounds per game, but even more impressive with Ange has been his activity outside of those stats. He’s a one-man flying death machine ready to erase shots, while helping gambling teammates recover on the defensive end. Even fast breaks aren’t safe from him.

The Blue Eagles’ big man has shown improved pick and roll defense thanks to his lateral speed. But even more evident has been his IQ and mentality, as he’s found a way to blend in his energy, athleticism, and smarts. He said so himself, “If we have the opportunity to trap and steal the ball, we go for it.”

Only when the opportunity is there does he trap or go for the steal. The goal isn’t to get blocks or steals; it’s to stop the other team from scoring. Ange has been the absolute best in the league on defense in the league and it hasn’t been close. It also isn’t a coincidence the best defender in the league plays for the best team as well.

The discussions of a three-peat are starting to gain steam, but it’s still a long season, with 12 games left on the schedule for the Blue Eagles. “We should be humble,” said Baldwin. “We really have to work on a lot more because ang dami ring naging negative effects kanina sa laro,” added captain Mike Nieto.  It’s the type of problem most dynasties face as many of them have the tendency of coasting through games. The work never stops even for the most inevitable of teams.

Yet you can’t help but marvel at how the Blue Eagles have been operating to start Season 82. Their effort on the defensive end has been A+, which is the end of the court where most teams tend to coast. At the very least, the Blue Eagles have remained committed on this end, and it has kept them undefeated. But the Blue Eagles can be better. They have plenty to work on. They still have a ceiling that can be reached and at this point, God knows how high that ceiling is. That in itself is already a scary thought for the seven other teams in the UAAP.