It’s quite apt that the UAAP is rolling with the theme “It all begins here” for the new season. The 81st season of the league feels like a fresh start, not just for several teams competing, but for the league itself.
UAAP Season 81 is all about new beginnings.
The UAAP Press Conference last Monday was filled with hilarity thanks to Coach Jamike Jarin’s antics, but there was certainly tension felt around the air. While being asked questions, the coaches looked stiff. It felt like they wanted to get something out, but didn’t do so for the sake of delicadeza. Then in one whip, Coach Olsen Racela of the FEU Tamaraws let it out, and opened the floodgates from there on out.
“I’d be surprised if they lost a game in the eliminations,” mentioned Racela while talking about the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Coach Joe Silva of the UE Red Warriors could only agree. “Of course Ateneo’s the champions for a reason. It’s Ateneo and everyone else.”
The Ateneo Blue Eagles have been the biggest story of the offseason. They didn’t become this spectacle because of any controversy or huge changes to the team. It came from something simple: winning. More that what they did, it was how they they did it that had fans talking. They started by sweeping the Filoil Flying V Tournament and then added a fourth place finish in the Jones Cup.
They’ve been the talk of the town since then, and the consensus among fans and analysts has the Blue Eagles repeating as champions. Some, like Racela, have even gone as far to say that they’ll be the first team in the Final Four era to complete a 16-0 championship sweep.
Coach Tab Baldwin knows all this. The players, college students who are in social media at a consistent basis, are surely aware of this. Facing the external pressure is something that the Blue Eagles have faced, are currently facing, and will continue to face as the season rolls along. That’s why Baldwin has made sure to control what he can with regards to this challenge his team faces.
It starts with one thing first: communication.
“We as a coaching staff, we control the messaging,” said Coach Tab Baldwin. “Within the context of our team, the messaging is very clear.”
Communication is an important part of basketball, with coaches having to communicate the concept of plays to their players, in order for the team to execute on the court. It’s unlikely to be seamless, especially when you consider the presence of outside noise. But what matters is the core of the message gets across.
With the technical side of things, it’s using whatever tools you have within the system in place to win a basketball game. In terms of the mental and emotional aspect, it’s a different focus altogether. “We haven’t done anything in terms of winning the UAAP,” claims Baldwin
Baldwin has gone on record that he doesn’t believe in the term defending champions, an idea he continues to preach stronger as the season draws closer. To him, this is a completely different group. They’ve attained success in the Jones Cup, as well as winning multiple championships over the course of the preseason. But in terms of one of their main goals, which is winning the UAAP championship? Nothing has been completed just yet. And amidst the noise from the media, fans, and even parents, he continues to communicate this to his players as they prepare for a new championship run.
After establishing communication comes the big picture. Winning the UAAP championship is what is in everybody’s minds when talking about the Ateneo Blue Eagles, but Coach Baldwin knows that being a head coach isn’t just about rings.
The most important part, something even the smartest of fans or analysts can forget, is that these players are still young students, learning the game. “We keep our focus on building basketball players,” explains Baldwin.
An underrated part of the dominance of the Blue Eagles over the preseason was the improvement and versatility the individuals of the team showed. Thirdy Ravena showcased an improve jumper which gives Coach Tab the option to play him as a shooting guard in big lineups. Will Navarro further improved on his skills to potentially play even forward in spurts.
Arguably the most tantalizing among the players was Angelo Kouame. He’s known as an imposing force down low who’s been a game changer for the Blue Eagles so far. But Baldwin has even bigger things in mind for Kouame. “We want Angelo Kouame to have guard skills.”
In the offseason, Kouame flashed those skills. In the Jones Cup as Kouame was matched up against players his size. Watch this move he pulls off against Korean naturalized player Ricardo Ratliffe, putting the ball on the floor with the skill of a guard:
It’s not just Kouame who Baldwin is looking to be better in Season 81. He wants Anton Asistio and Jolo Mendoza to become better at the defensive end as well as in breaking the infinite number of press defenses they’ll be going up against over the course of the season. The champion coach also wants Isaac Go to improve his athleticism, which will create a nice blend with his basketball IQ. He isn’t building parts of a championship team. He isn’t developing shooters, big men, or any roles that can limit growth. Baldwin wants to create complete basketball players.
“We want them to be versatile as basketball players,” passionately stated Coach Baldwin. “The more of that we get, the better chances they have in their career, and the more versatile our team becomes.”
While the public continues to call the Blue Eagles favorites to win the championship, Coach Baldwin and the team have greater things in mind. They’ve established a clear idea of the mentality they want to run within the team. They want to be better versions of themselves this season. Baldiwin’s process requires focus and clear communication, every step of the way. This type of mentality may even build into a new dynasty.
If it leads to a dynasty then Ateneo will take it. But that’s not what the Blue Eagles are focused on. They’re not even looking at the Season 81 Championship or the Final Four. Ateneo’s not looking that far ahead. For right now, they’re focused on Adamson, the team they will be facing this Sunday.
UAAP Season 81 Previews:
The Demolition Brothers Tag Team in NU
Franz Pumaren’s Flight Back to the Top
The Alvin Pasaol Cult Following