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PAYBACK: Don’t sleep on the FEU Underdogs

The FEU Tamaraws will face a new season without the new face of the team, RJ Abarrientos. They’re up for the challenge.

UAAP Season 84 was short and quick*. (*Just seven weeks of frantic college basketball—four times a day, three times a week.) UAAP Season 84 was weird*. (*It started with no fans, then a few, then a packed, roaring arena for a Game 3 UAAP Finals game in May*.) (*What?) Season 85 should be different: no more bubble, multiple venues, with a game schedule that allows us to breathe. There are no more excuses. Drop all asterisks. No BS in 85. It’s PAYBACK SEASON.

WORDS by Jone Mallorca

Everyone loves a good revenge tour in basketball.

Last week, I lost a close match in a game of NBA2K against a friend and I’m still wallowing in defeat and embarrassment. Yikes. But that’s the beauty of the game that makes us keep coming back and wanting more, it’s that with every loss, there arrives the opportunity to seek out redemption and the chance to prove oneself. 

Talking about proving oneself amidst adversities and challenges, enter Cholo Anonuevo, the 6’4” wingman of the FEU Tamaraws. He’s got the height and wingspan of a big, while also having the impressive capability to run up and down the floor with the speed of a point guard.

The 21-year-old, however, didn’t see that much playing time last season after suffering a mid-foot injury. The positive news is that he was able to return to playing ball during a preseason game with his fellow Tamaraws and continues to stay healthy in time for Season 85. 

“At the start, I was nervous because it’s been a long while since I have played, but I have been training a lot. But it’s a lot different when you’re playing the game. So I was a bit nervous, but it’s a process so when you get out there at the start, you won’t be who you were when you came off the court, right? So I felt like it’s a process, even if it’s a bad game or it’s a good game, I should just embrace it because I’m back on the court with my team. And that’s the most important thing,” Anonuevo said about the feeling of finally being able to return to the floor after recovering from his injury.

With the departure of RJ Abarrientos and the arrival of question marks surrounding the current depth of the roster, there are doubts about whether or not the team can even reach the Final Four in Season 85. If there is any indication of how the team’s upcoming season will go down, one must remember how the team responded in their final stretch of games, finishing off with a 7-7 record through resiliency and heart. But being resilient and having the heart in competing will only take a basketball team so far.

Even with the upside shown last season by the Tamaraws, they still have a lot to prove. And that’s okay. Having that chip on their shoulder brings out their confidence on the floor and should be a driving force for the team in reminding everyone that they are a team on the come up.

“It’s just the growth in each game we had. Our previous game wasn’t the same as our next game. The opponents were different and we were different. So, how we grew in the preseason is going to be a big factor going into the season. And I feel like we grew as a team really well this off-season. So we learned the strengths of each other, we learned the system as well, and we figured out who and what works well together, and it was a really fun preseason to watch. We went from ups and downs throughout the preseason, and it brings us a lot closer together,” Anonuevo said.

Growth is key for a revenge tour to fully succeed, wherein a team must acknowledge what did not work in the previous season moving forward. The Tamaraws started off slow in their first stretch of games with their inconsistent defense, lack of a smooth and proper flow in the offense, and even protecting leads. 

It was to be expected with a young roster going head-to-head against fierce competitions at play. However, the case for these young teams is that they would usually take losses badly and quickly begin to panic. At that moment, nasty and losing habits are developed on the floor and everything spirals out of control. This is one of the worst fears of every basketball fan, especially in the UAAP wherebschool pride is everything. 

Remember that feeling of being a freshman on a big campus at a university you’re forging and molding your identity? You only get a full picture of the shortcomings and mistakes that went down once that first year has wrapped up and everything comes at you quickly and simmers altogether as you prepare for your sophomore year. 

In the case of the FEU Tamaraws, however, they kept their chin up and maintained the ship at bay to pull off enough wins to eventually face Ateneo and lose by the end. It was a bittersweet ending for the team, that’s for sure. Could they have started off in a better position early on last season? Absolutely. Would the outcome have been any different if they faced any team besides the Ateneo Blue Eagles? Maybe. These are all questions that worsens the sting and the gut-wrenching feeling the Tamaraws felt after their loss. But it is supposed to hurt and sting for a while. It is a feeling that the team has to carry over in their upcoming season as they will look to continue their suddenly halted momentum.

During last season, one of the many problems encountered by the team during their rocky start was that they couldn’t find a consistent rhythm to their offense and defense. It was only when the team started playing faster in their ball movement, off-ball motion, quality spacing, and utilizing competitive defense, did they truly hit their stride and found areas that could be further enhanced as a team.

When you look at their guard-play with LJay Gonzales and Royce Alforque, they can be lethal in their scoring and penetration. While Patrick Sleat looks to step up as the defensive guard and playmaker for the team, John Bryan Sajonia and Xyrus Torres provide quality shooting and spacing for the team. While Emmanuel Ojoula and James Tempra add some size and rebounding on the team’s frontcourt, an X-factor to the team’s depth is the overall performance and health of Cholo Anonuevo. The guard-forward is able to provide versatility for the team with his length, speed, and defense.  But with Abarrientos’ departure, where does that missing piece leave the rest of the lineup combinations?

For the Tamaraws’ situation, they find themselves in an interesting scenario. With the loss of Abarrientos, and the team remaining cautious with Anonuevo’s status and health, they will be forced to rely on key role players in Sleat, Torres, Alforque, Sajonia, and Tempra to step up even more than what they did last season. And that’s okay. If you haven’t noticed by now, it’s that each player on this Tamaraws’ roster craves the opportunity to rise up to any challenge, especially when the going gets tough and the pressure reaches an all-time high. 

This kind of growth is rare for a young team such as the FEU Tamaraws, which was evident last season as the team underwent growing pains in losses but also managed to find aspects that worked and areas that can be improved further. This is a mentality inherited from head coach Olsen Racela with his optimistic view and focus on growth, development, and maximizing the potential of each player on the team. 

“Of course, every team’s goal is to make the Final Four. For us, we’re just trying to figure out how we can reach that. We know that teams got stronger and we should fight our way back to the Final Four. Of course, we want to reach that championship but we got to have steps first. Our main goal is to reach the Final Four first because that’s the main objective right now. I just hope that how hard we work is how lucky we’re gonna get. That’s what coach always tells us. That’s what we’re gonna bring and that’s our mentality going into this season,” Anonuevo said.

As the Tamaraws prepare for a return to the Final Four, and possibly the Finals, they look to experiment with their lineups. On one end, maintaining that fast level of play similar to last season can work wonders for the squad, but what about the defensive liabilities on size mismatches? Would a double-big lineup work for them then? Maybe. But what if both lineups can be combined into one? 

A possible projected lineup therefore for this scenario would be Gonzales, Sleat, Torres, Tempra, and Emmanuel Ojoula. How come? For starters let’s look at the versatility of the backcourt with Gonzales providing a scoring punch with his shotmaking and penetration prowess, along with the defensive and playmaking production of Sleat, and how he provides some size to the backcourt. Examining down low, Ojoula is a defensive presence under the basket while still continuing to improve his offensive arsenal. He will also be accompanied by Tempra who will be assisting in the rebounding department, while also undergoing his own improvements in his defense and offense during the offseason. With Abarrientos out of the picture, Torres looks to step up in being more consistent with his shotmaking and spacing while adding that second scoring punch with Gonzales.

I know what you’re thinking, does this lineup maintain that fast-paced offense that the Tamaraws found success in and a possible area for further growth, or does it jeopardize it in the process? I think it enhances even that style of play for the team. Now, you have two players on the floor that can provide spacing and reliable scoring, you add Sleat in the mix for his defense and playmaking which aids Gonzales to focus more on his scoring, while still retaining Ojoula as your main center and also getting help in the rebounding department from Tempra. The lineup simply oozes versatility on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, while still retaining that offensive pace from last season and adding another body in Tempra down low to add defensive presence under the basket.

This then leaves us with the bench depth. Alforque and Sajonia will look to provide a steady offense for the second unit as both players are expected to enter season 85 with more consistency in their respective games. Last season, we saw flashes of brilliance from the two with how they were able to score, but often found them missing in action on the floor with some inconsistency on their end. With Tempra and Sleat adding versatility for the starters, sliding Alforque and Sajonia in the second unit can aid the team in maintaining leads (which was another issue last season) and having reliable players coming off the bench. Having a lackluster bench can be a pain and a headache at the same time. 

Lastly, Anonuevo can be better managed by having him come off the bench as opposed to immediately putting him in the starting lineup, wherein he will look to knock off some rust after being on the sidelines and continuing to gel with his teammates. Managing Anonuevo’s health throughout the duration of Season 85 will be crucial to the Tamaraws’ success as he provides quality scoring, size, defense, versatility, and his ability to push the pace of the offense. Considering the level of competition that awaits this team, they will be needing every player available and ready to suit up.

“We’ve been saying throughout the whole preseason that we are the underdogs. So, we should just embrace it. We shouldn’t shy away from it. That’s why our mentality is that the harder we work, the luckier we get,” Anonuevo said.

A revenge tour is hard to fully accomplish, but isn’t that the beauty of basketball? A sport that will never hold one’s hand through every setback and barrier in place. It’s something that can be associated with everyday life, wherein isn’t it often an occurrence in life that hardships and doubts are always at play? To be considered small or incapable of adjusting when the going gets tough? But just like the FEU Tamaraws, no one likes to be slept on. This is why a revenge tour is imminent. 

“My recovery process was long. It was like a lot of mixed emotions, and I grew during that period as a person. It was tough for me at the start, and I just kept pushing during days na I didn’t want to work. The days na I didn’t feel like I’m getting better or ‘am I doing this?’, it helped me develop my character as a person and a strong foundation for myself. So it’s like every challenge is a learning so I took that as a learning as well,” Anonuevo said.

Similar to Anonuevo’s growth and realizations during his time on the sidelines, the same can be said for this Tamaraws team. There’s no denying the upside that the FEU Tamaraws have, but it is an upside that will be further tested in the upcoming season. Through every challenge, there is always something to be picked up from it. With a new season on the horizon, it opens the door for lots of teams to have their own paybacks in mind with each one having that chip on their shoulders trying to prove themselves. 

This is usually the case as a new season symbolizes that fresh start similar to how we enter a New Year with a resolution in mind. But the basketball gods have a habit of rewarding those that do the work. And with the flashes of growth that we saw last season, then we are in for a special treat for the Tamaraws’ revenge tour for Season 85.


[Photos by UAAP]