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PAYBACK: Get ready for UST’s roar back

The road to bringing back the crown to España might be a bumpy one, but the Growling Tigers are ready to turn the tides around.

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?) UAAP 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 Miguel Caramoan

For UAAP diehards, we have grown accustomed to watching UST basketball as a cool customer in the Final Four. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in Season 84, as the Growling Tigers finished with a 3-11 win-loss card, which placed them seventh among the eight participating schools.

Who could not forget (especially UST fans) the infamous incident that happened in the buildup of the team in Bicol, which saw then head coach Aldin Ayo get banned and an exodus of key players in their roster. And going into the resumption of UAAP in 2021, the remaining holdovers from the squad that went runners-up in Season 82 were only Dave Ando, Miguel Pangilinan, and Sherwin Concepcion.

With the aforementioned reason considered, it can be deduced that the Growling Tigers pretty much started from scratch. Although their coaching staff in Season 84 still was sort of Ayo influenced, they could do only much for the team. Familiarity with the whole roster wasn’t there and the results proved it.

To properly contextualize their performance in Season 84, it’s time to look at the (appropriate) numbers. Per Stats by Ryan, the Growling Tigers’ issues were on both ends, where they had the worst offense (85.3 offensive rating) and defense (106.6 defensive rating). These statistics were much inflated as they got beaten badly by other teams, including a 50-point demolition by the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

“Last season, ‘yung naging problem talaga namin is wala kaming import. ‘Yung mga big man naman sa team ay hindi pa ganon katangkad, kaya nahirapan talaga kami to deal with other teams,” said the Growling Tigers’ Season 84 team captain Paul Manalang.

Hirap talaga makipag-compete ng walang import, kasi kitang-kita talaga ‘yung height advantage ng mga kalaban sa amin. But the good thing is that we have Adama [Faye] for this season,” incoming sophomore Nicael Cabañero added.

With six out of the eight schools having their own foreign-student athlete, it was easy to identify that UST had to deal with bigger and taller opposition at a deficit. Another statistical nugget that also states the very obstacle they had difficulties to hurdle was the points in the paint allowed–with 39.14 points (worst mark in Season 84). The hope is that the returning Adama Faye can help better that aspect for the Growling Tigers this season.

Now let’s take a look at the Growling Tigers’ colorful preseason prep up for Season 85. If you’ve followed and rooted for the team, it would have been one hell of a roller-coaster ride for you. The wins gave you hope about the chances of the squad coming next season, but the losses were as heart-breaking as it could get. Nevertheless, it’s time to recognize what remained constant among all those fuss: King Tiger (yes, I said it!) Nic Cabañero.

Already showing flashes of how good he can be for UST in his rookie year, Cabañero made sure to follow it up with an impressive preseason, by averaging 15.9 points per game in the 16 total games he played. Yet, there are still aspects to which the second year player needs to refine more with defenses keying on him this upcoming season.

“I really wanted to improve my perimeter game and outside shooting talaga. If wala ka nung skill set na ‘yon sa college, parang ang hirap makipag-sabayan because malalaki ang mga players. So I need to get better on that aspect and boost my confidence to take those shots,” Cabañero said.

In terms of volume, Cabañero almost had the same shot attempts from beyond the arc in Season 84 compared to the preseason (3.5 to 3.75 per game), but what was noticeable was the variety of those attempts, emphasized by more movement shooting.

Another facet of Cabañero’s game that still needs more attention is his free throw shooting. In Season 84, he shot it at 55.9% from the stripe, but it shrunk even more in the preseason to a lowly 33% clip. Some of it may be related to finding the perfect shot mechanics, but there is no doubt that Cabañero is ready to put the work in.

But the harsh reality for the Growling Tigers by Season 85 is that even when they choose to run a heliocentric offense around Cabañero’s brilliance, it still might not be enough. Yes, this is what I was pertaining to about the descriptive word colorful to chronicle their offseason. Everyone saw how much Kean Baclaan would excel with UST. He left for NU. Sherwin Concepcion and Bryan Santos looked like legitimate shooters that will help space the floor. Both are ineligible to play in Season 85 due to age restrictions.

In short, pain.

As all these subtractions to the team took place near Season 85, the Growling Tigers have no choice to adjust accordingly to the current construction of the roster. Not exactly a veteran in some sort, but guard Paul Manalang understands the need to pick up the cudgels with some of their kuyas not being able to play.

Kasi ngayon nabawasan kami ng mga kuya eh, sila Sherwin [Concepcion] and Bryan [Santos], kaya ngayong season mas in-improve ko talaga ‘yung leadership skills ko and maturity dahil marami ulit na bago sa team namin na need ng guidance,” said Manalang.

Tasked as one of the lead floor generals of the team, Manalang hopes to take the next step for the betterment of the squad. Going back to Season 84, he averaged 7.6 points per contest while shooting 30.6% from 3 (5.14 attempts) on 48.8 TS%. Even with above average numbers of his, this won’t be enough unless the whole team commits to give their all to improve from last year’s disappointment.

Kailangan namin i-accept ‘yung bagong challenge then dapat ‘yung mga newcomers mag-double effort talaga para mafulfill ‘yung nawala sa team namin,” Manalang said.

While there were a lot of players that will not be suiting up this season, just like what Manalang mentioned, new recruits are here to reinforce the Growling Tigers. Players from the US like Kylle Magdangal and Richi Calimag are both ready by Season 85. Echo Laure and Kenji Duremdes are products of NSNU, arguably the best high school basketball program in the country.

Even if all the four personalities are second generation players, they got their brand of game to show for. In the case of Duremdes, living up the name is not going to faze him and he’ll just let his game do the talking.

“They can just expect me to play hard on both ends. I can play the 2 or 3 or even the 4 position, kung ano man kailangan sa akin ng coaches. Pero siyempre may pressure talaga as a rookie, but I just need to step up to help the team win,” Duremdes said.

It may be a tough route for Duremdes and the other newbies to become vital contributors in their first year with the team, but he credits the coaching staff for allowing them to play their own game with ease.

“It’s good na kahit new players kami, we can deepen the depth of the team na agad. ‘Yung system naman ni coach Bal [David] allows us to be ourselves lang. He doesn’t command us to have certain roles with the team naman, so it helps us to adjust easily,” Duremdes said.

Setting a certain expectation for this crop of Growling Tigers seems like not a great way at evaluating them. They basically came from literally finding their head coach to losing prized recruits to an abrupt ineligibility of essential pieces to the team. It’s better if we just look forward to how this young squad develops and makes strides to be more ready to compete in the coming UAAP seasons.

Or better yet, finish the thought by getting multiple perspectives from the players themselves: a new kid on the block (Duremdes), one of the leaders of the team (Manalang), and a budding superstar (Cabañero).

“This upcoming [UAAP] Season 85, I’ll do just whatever the team needs me and prove that I can be helpful already in my rookie year.” said Duremdes.

Gusto ko lang talaga maging better ‘yung performance ko compared to last season. Siguro this time, mas icocontrol ko ‘yung emotions ko. Gagawin ko ‘yung best ko para ma-lead ang team, para mas ma-improve ang ranking namin from last season,” said Manalang.

“I hope na ‘yung mga na-experience ko from Season 84 is ma-apply ko sa laro ko para I could grow pa as a player. Sana nandyan din lagi ang UST community para suportahan kami sa mga games, kasi ang goal talaga namin is ibalik ‘yung korona sa España,” said Cabañero.


[Photos by UAAP]