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PAYBACK: NU won’t run out of steam again

The NU Bulldogs were almost there last season. Then they ran out of steam. They want to make sure that won’t happen again.

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.

It doesn’t feel that long ago when the NU Bulldogs were last relevant. The image of Bobby Ray Parks Jr. slicing to the rim at will still seems as vivid as ever. Uttering the name Alfred Aroga induces war flashbacks for Ateneo fans to this day. For a time in the early-to-mid 2010s, the Bulldogs were the team to beat.

The early-to-mid 2010s, however, was a long time ago. While their Women’s and Boys teams continue to dominate UAAP basketball, the NU Men’s team has been languishing in mediocrity. They haven’t made the Final Four since 2015–the second longest drought in the UAAP, by the way–and have seen a mass exodus of both homegrown and senior talents like Carl Tamayo, Kevin Quiambao, and Dave Ildefonso for more stable UAAP programs.

But for a split second last season, things were looking up for NU. The Bulldogs came into UAAP Season 84 as a rebuilding side, but promptly squashed all expectations with a 4-3 record in the first round, the fourth-best in the league at that time. 

Their strong start was made sweeter by the production from their young guys. Rookies Reyland Torres, Janjan Felicilda, and Jake Figueroa, as well as third-year forward Michael Malonzo, were making huge contributions. But like most young teams, the Bulldogs ran out of gas. They lost four straight to open the second round, eventually missing out on the Final Four by a single game.

Still, the fact that the upstart Bulldogs were even in contention for a semis spot bode well for their future. But then came a trend that NU fans are numb to at this point–a massive roster overhaul. While seniors Shaun Ildefonso, Enzo Joson, and Issa Gaye expectedly bid their farewells, the homegrown rookie duo of Torres and Felicilda, who were each third and fourth in the Bulldogs in scoring last season, both left as well, reuniting with Coach Goldwin Monteverde in UP.

Suddenly, five of the nine top players in minutes played last season were gone. NU needed to partially remake their roster and impressively managed to do so in less than five months with an influx of young talent.

One of the biggest newcomers–literally–is Sengalese center Omar John, who is replacing Gaye as the NU’s foreign student-athlete. John’s forte is on defense: He’s imposing at 6’10” with quick hands, and can hang on the perimeter in NU’s blitzing pick-and-roll defense. John can also bang inside on offense, and even flashed some ball skills during the preseason. 

They also have the spitfire rookie duo of Kean Baclaan and LA Casinillo coming in to replace Felicilda and Joson. Baclaan, who originally committed to UST, is flat out one of the best young guards in the country. His playmaking and lethal scoring–evidenced by a 35-point outburst in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup while playing for UST–is a much-needed boost for the Bulldogs backcourt. And while Casinillo might not be as big of a name as Baclaan, he’s a stellar offensive guard himself with his quick darts to the rim, ace long-range shooting, and a deep bag of tricks. 

But if the Bulldogs want to make a legitimate run to the Final Four, it will come, in large part, down to the play of their King Bulldog: John Lloyd Clemente. 

Clemente, a 6’3” wing in his fourth year, led the team in scoring last season at 9.4 PPG, but was on-and-off last season as their lead man. His efficiency was subpar in Season 84; Clemente shot 31% from the field and an awful 21% from three on five attempts per game. But his play in the preseason was promising, bagging the MVP in the 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason cup. He averaged 13/4/2 to lead NU to a 11-0 campaign–NU’s first Filoil title since 2012. 

Clemente is looking more and more comfortable in his lead role, and with the addition of Baclaan, Casinillo, and the continued development of guys like Malonzo and Figueroa, Clemente can focus on finding his scoring within the flow of the offense. 

“[I’ve been working on] ‘yung shooting, and mas lalo ko pang ini-improve ‘yung ball handling ko and defense,” Clemente tells SLAM Philippines on his offseason improvements. “’Yung main goal namin syempre ‘yung championship, but we need to start sa first game, one game at a time.”

If Clemente makes a Mythical 5 run, their newcomers pop immediately, and one of the holdovers has a breakout year (watch out for Jake Figueroa–the former UAAP Jrs. MVP–this season), the Bulldogs could be scary this season. 

Will it be enough to end their seven-year Final Four drought? There’s a chance. But for NU, setting up a winning culture this season should be the goal regardless of the results. UAAP Season 85 could be the starting point for the stability and continuity that this program sorely needs, so that maybe, their relevance won’t feel that long ago anymore. 


[Photos by UAAP]