Let me paint a picture.
It’s the summer of 2017. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and the Golden State Warriors have just completed Year 1 of their reign, obliterating teams on their way to the Larry O’Brien trophy. Back then, teams were still (foolishly) naïve to how dominant this Warriors roster would become, how they would be the single most terrifying team to face in the last decade or so. GMs all over the league thought they could match the firepower of the Warriors by bringing in more talent.
The result? One of the biggest, craziest off-seasons in recent memory: one that saw nearly 20% of the players change teams in a span of three months. Contenders on paper were built overnight with the express intent of matching Golden State’s bevy of talent. Danny Ainge salvaged Kyrie Irving from the Cavs and acquired Gordon Hayward to try and revive the glory days of the Celtics. Sam Presti built a new Big 3 in Oklahoma, surrounding Russell Westbrook with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Daryl Morey doubled down on their patented Houston iso-Moreyball by pairing James Harden with Chris Paul, and getting a bunch of 3&D wings. Dan Gilbert tried his damnedest to save whatever was left of the Kyrie situation and got a bunch of guards to help LeBron James. The Knicks… well, were still the Knicks.
Few teams have the capacity to send their opponents in a scramble to compete against them alone. They have to be this massive entity that forces their peers to an ultimatum: keep up with us, or you’ll never succeed. Every team built during the Warriors run (especially in 2017) was faced with one question.
“Can they beat the Golden State Warriors?”
The Ateneo Blue Eagles have attained that same level of dominance in the UAAP. In the last few years, the Blue Eagles have become an indomitable squad in the collegiate scene. They’ve won three straight championships under former national head coach Tab Baldwin, culminating in a 16-0 sweep of the eliminations and Finals last season. There’s an air of inevitability around this iteration of ADMU, not unlike the Warriors of old.
Dread it, run from it, Ateneo arrives all the same.
As formidable as they have been in the past three years, there’s blue blood on the waters of the UAAP though, and other teams sense it. Ateneo’s strength has always been their rock-solid foundation, not their sheer talent. Yes, they have great players, but Coach Baldwin’s system have enabled them to achieve their full potential. This egalitarian approach, however, will be put to the ultimate test next season.
Thirdy Ravena, Matt and Mike Nieto, Isaac Go, and Adrian Wong have graduated after last season, creating some clear holes in the Ateneo system. With some of the more prominent names in Loyola out of the picture, other universities have started to try and capitalize on this perceived weakness by stockpiling more talent.
Perhaps the most notable of these schools is Ateneo’s neighbor in Katipunan.
After the de Liano brothers and Jaydee Tungcab left the program to pursue their national team aspirations, there was some worry in the UP community. But after snagging some prime talent in Gerry Abadiano and Carl Tamayo (at the expense of NU), Iskos and Iskas everywhere have to feel good. The cherry on top? Somehow snagging former UST hotshot CJ Cansino after he was booted off his former team (and a flurry of tweets from different players trying to recruit him). Add to this a dangerous core led by former MVP Bright Akhuetie, Kobe Paras, and Ricci Rivero, and the Maroons are poised to snatch the crown from their friendly neighbors.
La Salle, on the other hand, wants to rekindle their rivalry with Ateneo. Despite Andrei Caracut’s graduation and Jamie Malonzo’s departure, the Green Archers remain a pretty dangerous squad. They’ve acquired the services of brothers Michael and Benjamin Phillips to bolster an already solid front court with Brandon Bates, Amadou Ndiaye, and Gilas prospect Justine Baltazar. Joining them are two intriguing guard prospects in Joshua Ramirez from Letran and Ice Hontiveros, son of former PBA sniper Dondon. And as an added bonus, they’ve grabbed another former Bullpup in Kevin Quiambao to prepare for a future after Baltazar’s graduation.
Other teams have been making notable waves in the recruitment season. FEU promoted their star junior division player RJ Abarrientos to the seniors team, while also securing 2019 Partner’s Cup MVP Kevin Guibao. Adamson got former Baby Eagle Joaquin Jaymalin, ex-TIP guards Jhon Calisay and RV Yanes, and Fil-Italian Roger delos Reyes. UST is still a dangerous team even without Cansino, trotting out a core of Chabi Chabi Yo, Rhenz Abando and Mark Nonoy.
Simply put, teams are trying to challenge Ateneo for the crown now and in the coming years. The Eagles aren’t backing down, though.
SJ Belangel will likely step up to the role of King Eagle after Thirdy’s departure. A former blue-chip prospect, Belangel has shown signs of improvement over the years, culminating in a lights-out performance in the Finals last year. His inside-out game will be the foundation of Ateneo’s game plan for the foreseeable future.
With him is a cast of old reliables for ADMU. Guan Mamuyac is a feisty guard who is easily one of the best defenders in the league. Will Navarro is their biggest two-way threat. Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza are coming back from a one-year hiatus. And of course, the human cheat code that is Angelo Kouame still resides in Katipunan.
Help is also on the horizon for the Loyola-based squad, in the form of Dwight and Eli Ramos. Dwight Ramos has already shown signs of being an important piece for Ateneo, impressing in his short stint with the young Gilas boys this year (pre-Covidcalypse). Eli, on the other hand, brings another elite guard to the already formidable rotation of Ateneo.
The aftermath of the 2017 off-season… didn’t end well for everyone except the Warriors. Each of the super team I mentioned earlier did not succeed in trying to dethrone the Warriors. They went on to be the overlords of the NBA for the next few years, eviscerating the hopes and dreams of everyone else in the process.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles have a chance to build something similar right now. With everyone gunning at them without their old stars, a statement season this year would cement the idea of an Ateneo dynasty for years to come. It won’t be easy though, not with a huge-asset target painted on their backs.
Buckle up, folks. The UAAP is about to get real interesting next season, and you wouldn’t want to miss it.