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 only took five years, but the unthinkable finally happened: the Ateneo Blue Eagles are no longer the bona fide favorites to win the UAAP championship.
And before Ateneo fans bring out the pitchforks, this is not to say that the Blue Eagles aren’t a good team. In fact, calling them “good” is quite an understatement. Ateneo still has Ange Kouame, the reigning MVP and probably the best player in the UAAP. Dave Ildefonso is one of the finest forwards in the country. And there’s a reason why hundreds of think pieces have been written about Tab Baldwin lately—his name is synonymous with winning.
Yet, Ateneo’s loss against UP in the UAAP Season 84 Finals exposed the Blue Eagles in ways we haven’t seen in years. Ateneo’s defense, the cornerstone of their last three-peat, fell from “near-perfect” to just “very good,” and against a team as talented as UP was last season, that difference mattered. And their whirring, flowing offense crumbled in the heat of the Finals, leaving the team over-reliant on SJ Belangel to work his magic on the pick-and-roll.
Speaking of Belangel: his departure for Korea is also a huge factor on Ateneo’s dimmer-than-usual outlook. Seniors Gian Mamuyac, Raffy Verano, and Tyler Tio, who all played critical roles in Ateneo’s 13-1 campaign, have moved on as well. These all make it hard to picture the Blue Eagles nearly sweeping the UAAP again—let alone beating the intact UP squad that, by the way, just beat a more formidable version of this current Ateneo team.
But don’t pencil in Ateneo falling out of contention just yet. In what has become a yearly tradition, Ateneo seems to have a never-ending supply of quality players waiting in the wings.
Take the now-open starting four position, for example: Not only do they have Joshua Lazaro, a versatile forward who carved consistent minutes despite being a rookie, they also will welcome Kai Ballungay this season to compete in the frontcourt.
Ballungay might be the most athletic Blue Eagle since Thirdy Ravena. At 6’7” with crazy hops, he’s a perfect foil to Kouame’s rim protection as a weakside defender, and will feast in the open floor. And he’s no chump with the ball either: Ballungay flashed playmaking juice and range from deep in the preseason, making him the most exciting newcomer Ateneo has had in a while.
To replace Mamuyac, expect Chris Koon to take a larger role this season as well. Koon is the archetypal Tab Baldwin player. The lefty wing is deceptively huge at 6’5”, and can do it all— handle the ball, playmake, defend, and rebound, you name it. Oh, and he also led the entire freaking UAAP in three-point shooting last season at 45% at decent volume. Mamuyac’s play on both sides of the ball is a bigger loss than people think, but Koon is more than capable of stepping up to that role.
But perhaps the biggest hole Ateneo needs to fill is at point guard, especially given Belangel’s brilliance last season. Forthsky Padrigao has emerged as Ateneo’s de-facto starter, and checks a lot of the boxes that Ateneo needs at the point. Padrigao has one of the smoothest forms in the league. He shot 39% from deep last season, a good mark albeit in a small sample size, and his court vision might even be better than his shooting.
But Padrigao is a vastly different player from Belangel. It’s difficult for anyone to replicate SJ—much less Forthsky, who averaged 7.1 minutes in 10 regular season games and played sparingly in the semis and finals. Ateneo won’t necessarily need him to be Belangel 2.0; Padrigao just needs to sustain his shooting at a higher volume and improve his half-court creation to sustain Ateneo’s already-great offense.
UAAP Season 85 will be a pivotal campaign for Ateneo. This might be the last season headlined by the Kouame-Ildefonso duo, so the Blue Eagles will need their young guys to get their reps while also competing for the title, which is always tricky to balance.
But this has always been Tab Baldwin’s forte: developing his guys to be pros and grabbing wins in the process. This might not be Baldwin’s strongest Ateneo roster— far from it, actually—but if the young guys pop and Ange and Dave develop into the best duo in the league, don’t be surprised if Ateneo gets payback for last year.
[Photos by UAAP, Kai Ballungay photo by TAKU]