I was sitting courtside in the Araneta Coliseum about an hour and a half before game start of the Ateneo vs La Salle rivalry match. This was the inaugural game of the season for the latter, so I wanted to catch a quick glimpse of their roster.
Honestly, I was seeing a lot of them for the first time. I’m not ashamed to admit that, cause even Ateneo’s Coach Tab Baldwin touched on his limited knowledge of the new-look Archers in the postgame, “We didn’t have any expectations of La Salle. We knew a little bit from a couple of their pocket games recently, but we didn’t know a lot.”
About an hour later, a friend walked up to me and showed me La Salle’s starting five: Meeker. Caracut. Orme-Malonzo. Baltazar. Bates.
Two one-and-done rookies and no Aljun Melecio — the supposed face of the team for the second year running — wasn’t even starting for La Salle. Right off the bat, the Green Archers’ new consultant Jermaine Byrd was already running with bold, perhaps experimental ideas.
Then the game began, and I started to see the thought process of DLSU’s kingpin. La Salle RAN, leveraging their rangey athletes and temporarily putting themselves in a favorable position against Ateneo’s lull-you-to-sleep halfcourt attack. They ran on misses and makes, one of which resulted in a dunk that nearly killed half of Araneta:
After the end of the first quarter, La Salle, a squad that felt like it was built together in a day, stood toe-to-toe with the back-to-back UAAP champions. That was, until Ateneo pulled out their second quarter technical masterpiece, blew the game wide-open, and exposed the limited bag of flaws we actually knew about La Salle. Melecio looked hopeless trying to attack Koaume, Baltazar was underutilized in their two-big attack, and the one-and-dones didn’t seamlessly fit within their overall system.
The intensity and self-belief La Salle came out with disappeared after one swift reality slap from the champs. I walked into the halftime break almost sure that La Salle was done, shuffling in my mind a dozen cliches about the immaturity of a young team with little chemistry.
Then the Green Archers came out in the second half, and it felt like they were able to trot out a new set of weapons. They managed to make Ateneo run with them once again, this time instead of simply utilizing athleticism, they used defense.
They suffocated defending champions with zones and traps, forcing them to multiple turnovers and perimeter shots. Once in a while, Ateneo would make them pay from downtown (see: BJ Andrade), but La Salle’s D dared their rivals to beat them with midrange jumpers or threes from inexperienced shooters.
La Salle still ended up falling by a dozen points despite matching up quite well with Ateneo in three of four quarters. It was that one remaining quarter — the one that mixed Ateneo’s dominance with La Salle’s gluttony of flaws — that proved insurmountable for the Green Archers.
Yet La Salle’s whirlwind performance in Game 1 ties in beautifully to their entire identity as this year’s Great Unknown. All we knew about La Salle entering this year was that they were built in a way the UAAP had never seen before: with a slew of Fil-Am one-and-dones and no official FSA. And after finally seeing them play meaningful UAAP minutes, there’s still no telling what this team is.
Can they emerge past the litany of contenders in the middle of the pack?
It’s easy to argue that they have the athletes to run with UST, and even overwhelm Adamson. They may even have the raw talent to outclass UP if they’re able to outrace the Maroons in figuring the internal part out.
At the same time, it took a complete breakdown against Ateneo for them to figure out the proper plan of attack. How much quicker can their coaching staff figure out their in-game adjustments as the season goes on? And can they come out with the same intensity in lesser hyped, but potentially more meaningful games?
And ultimately, if they somehow manage to put it all together in the next 13 games, are they actually the field’s best bet to challenge the immortal Blue Eagles?
Even with one game down, they’re simply still a complete unknown. However it’s the uncertainty — the limitless range of the ceiling and floor that Archers have with this transitory roster — that makes the Green Archers the UAAP’s unique, yet quintessential wildcard.