UAAP Juniors Finals Primer: Ateneo Blue Eaglets

 

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HOW ATENEO GOT HERE

Two Ds. First off, Dominance.

For the most part, the Ateneo Blue Eaglets were a dominant force for the entire season, with teams failing to put a stain on their win-loss record all season long. It’s easy to point to their loaded roster as the reason for their success. After all, the team has a whopping six former Batang Gilas leading the team, and that list doesn’t even include names like Joaqui Manuel and Amchel Angeles.

The talent definitely helps. It isn’t a surprise they rank second in the league in terms of points per 100 possessions with a mark of 93.82. But it’s the second D which really made the difference for the Blue Eaglets. But it’s the second D that really set them apart from other teams. The second D, Defense.

The Blue Eaglets were far and away the best team in the league defensively, only allowing 70.14 points per 100 possessions, a full nine points higher than the next team on that list. A big part of that is because of Kai Sotto, who lead the league in blocks averaging 3.9 blocks per game. But blend his sheer presence in the paint along with the length and size of Belangel, Credo and Ildefonso along the wings and it’s close to impossible for teams to score around the rim. It’s no surprise then Ateneo allowed just an average of 25.9 points per game in the paint, tops in the league.

There were instances however, where Ateneo was pushed to the brink. First was against the FEU Baby Tamaraws, where they won by just three points thanks to the heroics of SJ Belangel and Joaqui Manuel. The second time was versus NU, where they were down for most of the fourth quarter until Belangel went supernova in the fourth quarter. They pulled through, and here they are now – two games away from fulfilling the expectations of most.

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KEY QUESTION: What kind of offense will Ateneo run when the going gets tough?

As invincible as the Blue Eaglets may have looked for most of the season, they had one problem: their offense.

“If you look at the stats, our offense has always been the problem,” shared Coach Joe Silva. How could a team as talented as the Ateneo Blue Eaglets have a problem on the offensive end? On paper, it made zero sense. But the product on the court showed their issues. This stems from one thing – The Blue Eaglets’ inability to take care of the ball.

Ateneo leads the league in terms of turnovers, averaging 24.9 a game. They have more than capable ball-handlers (Belangel, Credo, Ildefonso, Escalona), but the issue mostly lies when it comes to breaking the pressure defenses they have had to go up against. There were instances during the regular season where they were unable to even bring the ball past the half court. Then during the times they’d get past half court, they’d have trouble holding on to it, unable to settle themselves down before attacking.

Breaking a pressure defense can be approached in two ways: you break it down in an instant, then try to go for the easy basket since there are bound to be openings to the rim. The other way is to break it then settle things down to efficiently get a basket. The former seems easy, but it’s filled with risks. The latter is the efficient way at doing it, but it’s easier said than done especially for these Blue Eaglets.

Executing around the halfcourt hasn’t exactly been the Blue Eaglets’ best quality. As deadly as Ateneo’s Death Line-up is (Sotto, Manuel, Credo, Ildefonso, Belangel) it also comes with one flaw: this quintet has had trouble establishing a consistent offensive flow during the clutch. It’s natural for a team with that much alphas to have trouble. At times they would try to dump the ball to Sotto. Of course, going isolation with either Ildefonso or Belangel have been attempted, but usually to no avail. They’ve given basic dribble drive a shot, but the wings surrounding the initiator have had trouble making the correct decision since most of them are used to being the one to initiate rather than them receiving the pass.

They may have found a template to follow ever since. During their last game versus NU, they ran a familiar set that their kuyas in the Seniors Division loved to run:

Blue Eaglets halfcourt execution

If there’s one thing these Blue Eaglets can do best, it’s creating for others. That’s what this basic motion hand-off set gives us, multiple passes with the potential of a pass to a cutter possible at any second. It’s a good place to start for the Blue Eaglets – employ sets with a ton of motion and passing. In such a set-up will their talent flourish the most.

That’s just one set, in one game during the regular season, however. The playoffs are a different animal. For now, the Blue Eaglets are left searching for answers with the information they have so far on their team. They already have the talent, so that makes things a lot easier for them.

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KEY PLAYERS

The offense of the Blue Eaglets will be led by SJ Belangel and Dave Ildefonso, while their defense will have Kai Sotto as the anchor. Their three Mythical Five members are givens already, and NU will center their game plans around those three. It’s then up to Jason Credo and Geo Chiu to provide the needed support for their big three.

After his run with Batang Gilas, many hailed Credo as the next in line to the same lineage as Gian Mamuyac and Von Pessumal. He was supposed to be the do it all wing to the Kiefer Ravena/Jolo Mendoza of SJ Belangel. He’s become severely underrated since then because of the emergence of Ildefonso and Sotto. However, we still cannot deny the value of Credo to the team.

It’s safe to bet that Credo won’t be the dominant second option we expected him to be early on, and that’s fine. Credo’s calling card for this series will be doing the little things for the Blue Eaglets. With the defenses swarming Belangel, he has to be that release valve who will ease the pressure off their captain. In the half court, he has to be ready for that kick out pass for the possible three-pointer. On the defensive end, he has to be ready to be an elite help defender and to continue hounding those passing lanes. Those little things will make a world of difference for the Blue Eaglets.

Chiu has received his fair share of criticism dating back to his Batang Gilas days. For all of his height, he was passive on the offensive end and screamed lumbering big man who needed to hit the gym rather than someone teams can rely on to get a basket. He’s improved considerably since then, and has become a decent offensive option. But versus NU, he’ll be relied upon because he gives the Blue Eaglets a different look compared to when Kai is on the floor.

The Bullpups bigs annoyed the living hell out of Sotto because of how rangy and pesky they were against him. Versus Chiu, that didn’t matter that much. Since he’s so big and wide, Michael Malonzo and Pao Javillonar will have trouble establishing position and grabbing offensive boards. The challenge for Chiu isn’t necessarily on the offensive end and boxing out. It’s getting to defend action inside the rim, as he clearly has trouble reacting to quick passes done by teams. He doesn’t necessarily have to score that much points. If he’s able to swivel his head around a little bit quicker than usual to react to cutters and passes, then that should be enough for the Blue Eaglets.

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COACHES CORNER:

Many have branded this series as championship or bust for Coach Joe Silva. It’s not the craziest thing in the world to say. With the amount of talent that he has and with the Ateneo name he has to carry, nothing less than a championship is expected out of him and his boys.

The talent is there. The challenge for Coach Silva is to manage that talent well and to not allow themselves to commit the same mistakes they made last season versus FEU in their do or die game. That means not losing focus when the going gets tough, and to make the right calls whatever the circumstance may be.

At the same time, he has to manage how the boys will handle being on National TV for the first time with a championship on the line. He isn’t foreign to this, but his players are. There can’t be an adjustment period, especially with a thrice to beat advantage no longer existent.

Championship or bust may sound daunting. But with the kind of talent Coach Silva and the Blue Eaglets have, it’s only fitting. Their greatest rivals, after all, may be themselves more than anything else.

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