The San Beda Red Lions have been the NCAA’s version of Thanos even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a thing. Ever since the 2006 season, San Beda has won 11 out of 13 Finals series, with only the San Sebastian Golden Stags of Calvin Abueva and the Letran Knights of Mark Cruz knocking down the Lions from their perch momentarily. But that’s all these losses are for San Beda; mere blips. They still remain as the gold standard of the league, with zero sign of them slowing down anytime soon.
It isn’t surprising then to see San Beda with an immaculate 18-0 record to end the elimination round of the NCAA. A championship feels inevitable once again for the Red Lions. A four-peat, as rare as that may seem, is once again on the table for the defending champions. Focus on the operative term here: on the table. It’s not being handed over. The Red Lions still have their work cut out for them if they really want to attain championship glory.
Standing in their way are three teams: the San Sebastian Golden Stags, the Letran Knights, and their modern rivals of the Red Lions, the Lyceum Pirates. Which then begs the question; what’s each team’s case to potentially topple the giant of the NCAA? Here’s the case for each one:
San Sebastian Golden Stags: Top Tier Scorers
After years of middling around mediocrity, the San Sebastian Golden Stags have catapulted themselves back to relevance. They’ve made the leap from explosive team that’s fun to watch, to explosive team that’s fun to watch AND has shown potential to contend. They’re still must-watch basketball. But they’re slowly translating their flair to substance. At the core of their success has been their duo of RK Ilagan and Allyn Bulanadi.
Bulanadi is arguably the more notable of the two given his previous explosion for 44 points this season against the Perpetual Altas. He’s a pro-ready wing with size, length, and skill to give any type of defense plenty of trouble. Right beside him is Ilagan, while lacking the type of signature moment that Bulanadi has, he continues to be one of the most consistent players of the Stags. He’s an absolute dynamo who uses his range to aid his playmaking.
Those are two offensive beasts. The Stags need both of them to click for Baste to have a chance at toppling the Red Lions.
Letran Knights: Massive Front Line
The Letran Knights have had an up and down season. From Jerrick Balanza returning and becoming an even better player, to freak losses which didn’t help their Final Four seeding, the Knights have been one of the more confusing teams to watch this entire NCAA season.
Despite that, there is one constant to their arsenal: size and talent. It was what many pointed to prior to the season when discussing the chances of the Knights. They’re bigs are not only mean and physical, but they’re also damn skilled. Balanza is already a problem on his own, but blend in his multi-faceted game with Jeo Ambohot, Larry Muyang, and Ato Ular? That’s going to be a long and rough game in the paint for San Beda.
The challenge for Letran will be to sustain their spurts of good basketball play. They’re a rare breed of a team that’s able to play defense well while also scoring enough to beat top tier teams. But they need to score at a more consistent rate. Dragging San Beda into a grit and grind game is already one step to beating them. Getting more points than them, however, is another challenge altogether.
Lyceum Pirates: Fearless Experience
Truth be told, the Pirates are the boring pick among these three teams. If Lyceum does end up making it to the Finals, this would be their third straight date with the Red Lions in the grandest stage of the NCAA. It seems like such a lazy choice. But it may just be the one with the most logical explanation.
Among the three teams in the stepladder format, the Pirates are the ones armed with the most experience. While Letran did make it to the playoffs last season, they haven’t had the Finals experience Lyceum has had over these last few years. That matters, especially in a college basketball landscape as fast-paced as the NCAA. Intangibles such as composure, grit, and desire are overused and even cliche, but they’re the ones that make or break teams when the stake is high.
For a team to face San Beda in the big stage, they can’t be scared. Despite two losses in the Finals already, Lyceum as shown they’re willing to face this giant that’s dominated the NCAA for more than a decade now and won’t back down until the end