Can the CSB Blazers live up to their dark horse tag?

The CSB Blazers aren’t the most popular “Animo” team in the Philippines. Heck, they’re not even the most popular one in the NCAA. For a long time, the CSB Blazers have struggled to find their footing in the league—dogged by recruitment woes, they became a perpetually rebuilding and perpetually young squad reduced to modest goals.

After the Blazers ended Season 92 with just one win, they turned to former Rain or Shine guard, DLSU Green Archer and UAAP champion TY Tang, whose assistant coaches include Charles Tiu and Ali Peek. Barely two years after, fans got a new-look Blazers that knocked out UP in the FilOil preseason tournament—by way of guard Unique Naboa blocking Bright Akhuetie, of all people—and have been tagged as a dark horse for NCAA Season 94’s final four.

While Tang is thankful for the praise, he’d rather temper expectations. “We had a great pre-season, but not a great start to the season,” says Tang. Their off-season highlights include guard Unique Naboa blocking Bright Akhuetie, of all people, yet they lost their first game of the season. “Losing it was a reminder that we haven’t proved anything in the NCAA yet.”

One month down

At the time Tang chalked up the rough start to an excess of excitement. One month into the season, they have been alternating wins and losses, but there are several things to be excited about.

Yankee Haruna has gone from missing Season 93 because of an injury to being a team captain with reliable production, while new recruit Justin Gutang had a game where nearly every shot he made was a triple. Even big man Clement Leutcheu showed off his outside shot against Letran.

Tang takes time to praise other new players, as well. “They’re young, but the moment they step on the court, they’re going to play their hearts out,” he says. The team’s youth still shows in their difficulty closing tight contests, such as their recent loss to Letran on the Knight’s home court, but the 64-60 loss is still a marked improvement from the 92-78 loss they had in the same venue last year.

But as his players grow, Tang also observes changes in his own personality and coaching style.

“[The biggest change for me is] being more patient and understanding with our players. That was there last year, but I’d say it’s on another level now,” he says. “The challenge is drawing the line between being their coach and being their friend, but I’m glad we’ve deepened our relationships. The proof will be in the end result.”

Haruna’s new heights

The growth of Haruna, in particular, is a good mirror to the development of the Blazers under Tang.

Immediately after Haruna suffered a season-ending shoulder injury just days before the opening of Season 93, Tang’s coaching staff talked to him about he could still prepare. He was already the co-captain then, and the coaches wanted him to stay on track.

The challenge they gave Haruna? You still have your other arm free—learn to shoot with it. He put in the work, struggling at first but eventually clearing those one-armed shots from different spots on the court. Tang couldn’t be happier.

“He was able to deliver. It took a lot of hard work and patience. Before, he never had range, but now he can do things he wasn’t able to before. We see it in his versatility and IQ. It’s like he’s a different player now,” says Tang.

Speaking of Haruna, the team had a good laugh about their “unconventional pre-game” against Mapua. Some of the Blazers who stayed in the team dorm, including Haruna, were stranded because of flooding. Determined to get to the game, they booked a pedicab to get out of the area, floodwater be damned.

It was going swimmingly—pun intended—if uncomfortable, until a large SUV plowed through the flooded lane next to them, sending a wave of dirty, murky water into the pedicab and onto the players. Haruna, who was on the phone with the coaches giving updates on their locations, yelled out a colorful stream of curses that had everyone in stitches.

They made it to the arena on time, won the game, and as a reward for their commitment, Tang treated the whole team to a meal out.

The underdog connection

Similarities can be drawn between the Blazers and the LPU Pirates, who jumped from cellar-dwellers to contenders beginning with their third season under coach Topex Robinson. Both Tang and Robinson utilize emotional intelligence in their coaching styles, and are among the new wave of younger, relational coaches in the NCAA.

That said, Tang says they faced different challenges. Tang took over a depleted CSB; LPU had more raw materials to work with. “They [the Pirates] simply needed confidence,” Tang says, explaining that coaching CSB required more investment in his players’ foundational skills.

“Coach Topex is a mentor who instills discipline and values,” Tang says. “In a way, I see the similarity. We haven’t talked about anything specific—when we get a chance to talk, it’s more about the values we’re trying to teach our players—but from that, I think we’re on the same page.”

At the core of both squads is a belief that building a great team is less about grooming superstars, and more about growing everyone together. Tang says: “One thing I always remind them of is for a team to succeed, the team must be able to depend on every member and every member must be able to depend on the team.”

Whether or not the CSB Blazers live up to the “dark horse” expectations remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but this much is sure: they’re done being pushovers.