I’m sorry, the old Ateneo and La Salle can’t come to the phone right now

Big changes can have quite the effect to large groups of people, but it often takes just one event to trigger all of these to happen.

Taylor Swift’s change in demeanor began after Kanye West interrupted her in 2009 VMAs. Batista winning the 2005 Royal Rumble and booking a ticket to Wrestlemania essentially ended his stint as the bouncer of Evolution. Blowing a 3-1 lead prompted the Golden State Warriors to not just add second best player in the world Kevin Durant, but to also become the biggest villains in the NBA.

We still remembered Taylor Swift during her White Horse days, Batista when he was just winning Tag Team titles with Ric Flair and the Warriors when they were the golden boys of basketball. But that’s all those are, mere memories of who they were. What’s evident now is how different they are from their past personas.

The Ateneo Blue Eagles and the De La Salle Green Archers went up against each other for the very first time ever since the UAAP Season 80 Finals. The first meeting between the two rivals happened in the Filoil Flying V Preseason Cup. Coming into the game, the big topic was how La Salle was operating without former Coach Aldin Ayo, reigning MVP Ben Mbala and supposed franchise player Ricci Rivero. There was plenty of uncertainty regarding La Salle’s make-up coming into the collegiate basketball season. After a couple of games in the preseason, an image of a team is starting to come forth.

Even Ateneo, their bitter rivals, look different with how they operate. It’s not as evident as the Green Archers with their core still intact. But if you watch how they play and what ticks for them, you can see differences from the Season 80 Blue Eagles, and who they are now.

The UAAP season is about to start, and the old Ateneo and La Salle can’t come to the phone right now. What matters is who they are in the present. It’s important we make sense of what has changed for both teams, and what triggered those changes to happen in the first place.

2017 De La Salle Green Archers: Mayhem

When Aldin Ayo was at the helm, the identity of the Green Archers was clear. They would implement small ball lineups that would pressure you to oblivion. Their athletic front court led by Ben Mbala would force turnovers to get easy baskets on the other end of the floor. They ranked number two last season in terms of pace, and was ranked third in terms of Turnover percentage. The Mayhem System produced one championship in Season 79.

2018 De La Salle Green Archers: Fundamental Mayhem

What triggered the change: A huge overhaul

Things didn’t look good for the Green Archers early in the year.

They lost their head coach, franchise player and two time MVP over the course of one offseason. Combined, that’s a death blow for most teams. But La Salle isn’t your regular, run of the mill team. Despite losing their biggest stars, they still had plenty of talent on the team, ready to take over for the pieces they lost.

Talent wasn’t an issue. They continued to recruit quality players from the High School level (Donn Lim, Miggy Corteza, Joaqui Manuel, Christian Manaytay, Neil Tolentino). That means they have a roster that’s ready to contend for a Final Four at the very least.

The true elephant in the room was the coaching. Coach Louie Gonzalez wasn’t the big name La Salle fans expected to be head coach. He may have been the architect of the Mayhem system and the lead assistant of Coach Ayo, but he wasn’t as recognizable as the other coaches rumored to take on the role.

Coach Gonzales quickly showed just how good of a coach he really is.

La Salle’s game versus Ateneo was a showcase of how impressive of a job Coach Louie and his coaching staff has done when it’s come to changing things up. There’s a particular level of stability that could be seen with how the team handled itself in the huddles and off the court.

It was refreshing to see the interaction between Coach Gonzales and his team. This was no longer the same brash, smashmouth La Salle we got used to over the last two seasons. At the very core, this team put importance to fundamentals.

It’s sounds weird to say this, but it totally made sense: La Salle executed in the halfcourt better than Ateneo did in their game last Tuesday. A big part was how there was a clear theme to how La Salle was running their action. It would always start with their big men, whether that be Santi Santillan, Justine Baltazar, or rookie Kira Samuel. Their offense would often start with a post entry pass, and their offense would flow off that action. It wasn’t the quick, athletic movement we’ve grown accustomed to from La Salle. It was much more deliberate now. Simple basketball, but they made it work.

That simplicity was most evident in the final seconds of regulation, when the Green Archers needed a basket to salvage the game. It was a simple play again, that had Jollo Go giving Santillan a back screen, and the misdirection that came from the weak side was enough to confuse the defense and stop a potential switch from happening. There is beauty in simplicity:

That’s not to say they completely threw away their Mayhem roots, there were still instances where they would suddenly pressure the Blue Eagles and score easy buckets. But there’s a clear difference to how La Salle operates right now.

Aljun Melecio or Kib Montalbo will undoubtedly still have their moments where they’re simply on fire. But those aren’t necessities anymore. They’re now luxuries to a system that’s a better fit for the current composition of the team.

2017 Ateneo Blue Eagles: Kings of Execution

Executing in the half court was Ateneo’s game, something they did to try and counter the lack of athleticism they had in their front court. They were last in pace, but their efficiency on the offensive end was absolutely pristine. It was like watching the beautiful game of the San Antonio Spurs, but instead of Tim Duncan handing off the ball to Tony Parker, it was Chibueze Ikeh giving the rock to Matt Nieto. It was efficient basketball that eventually resulted into a championship. Can’t doubt that.

2018 Ateneo Blue Eagles: The Evolution of Kings

What triggered the change: Additional talent

Versus La Salle, Ateneo continued to try and run it’s motion offense initiated off dribble handoffs. You’d think it would be easy considering the familiarity the core players have with the system. But here’s the problem, Ateneo in 2018 is a far different team compared to who they were last year. It’s a testament not just to the new talent that they have, but also to the evolution everyone in the team is undergoing as individuals.

Last season, Ateneo centered their system around their motion because they didn’t have an isolation player to just dump the ball to and create something for them. Thirdy Ravena wasn’t a reliable ball-handler, so most of his attacks came off the dribble pitch leading to the straight line drive. It was a system that created rhythm for the Blue Eagles, and required high basketball IQ rather than pure talent.

It’s different this year, as the level of talent in the team has increased. It can pictured with the replacement of the foreign student athlete already. No doubt about it, Angelo Kouame is already a far more talented prospect than Ikeh. His raw ability to create in the post is something we haven’t seen from a big man in Ateneo ever since the Rabeh Al-Hussaini days. Raw power, paired with skill to boot. An absolutely deadly combination.

The increase in talent level can also be seen with Thirdy Ravena. He’s just a far better player now compared to how he was last season. You can’t sag off him anymore since he’s shown he can shoot it from mid-range. The only stopping him from being totally un-fuck-withable is his handle. Pesky defenders like Montalbo could strip the ball away when they pressure him from the half court. Otherwise, Thirdy adding a jumper feels like adding another infinity stone to his already growing collection. A terrifying prospect for teams to look at.

Here’s the problem — RIGHT NOW at least — with blending in talent with the kind of system Ateneo’s been used to running: it mucks the flow a little bit since players can get tempted to stray away from the system and rely on their talent to produce. Ateneo is a team that avoids isolating, but they did so on this sequence. Yes, this may seem like a mismatch. But a step back three-pointer is not an ideal shot when your head coach values efficiency.

Ateneo’s execution right now is off compared to how it was last year. As mentioned, they actually got out-executed by La Salle for most of the game. Most of their baskets came off fast breaks, or even bail out threes. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing for this to be happening to the Blue Eagles right now. It’s simply a testament to their evolution a basketball team.

Slowly but surely, the playing styles of new Green Archers and new Blue Eagles are meeting in the middle.

La Salle is playing more fundamental basketball. Relying on running their system to get their immensely talented players better looks. Ateneo’s players are evolving into superstars. They now have the talent to try out new ways to play. It’s going to be interesting to see how far these two teams improve from their first meeting of the year, to what will surely be action-packed future match-ups come the UAAP season.

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