UAAP Season 78 preview: Ateneo Blue Eagles

admu-nu f4 pic 2 by roy afable

New Recruits: Aaron Black, Chibueze Ikeh, Isaac Go, Matt Nieto, Mike Nieto, Jerie Pingoy, Adrian Wong, Hubert Cani
Holdovers: John Apacible, Gideon Babilonia, Gwyne Capacio, Ponso Gotladera, Vince Tolentino, Von Pessumal, Arvin Tolentino, Kiefer Ravena
Departures: Chris Newsome, Nico Elorde, Anton Asistio, Thirdy Ravena (academically ineligible), Kris Porter, Isaac Lim, Jay Javelosa, Clint Dolinguez

Season 77 result –  Season 77 was a sort of coming out party for Kiefer Ravena and the Blue Eagles. It was the first time UAAP fans saw what Ateneo’s playing style was going to be moving forward. The Blue Eagles became a fast, high-paced, relentless scoring machine with Ravena leading the onslaught. Ateneo was the number one offensive team last season, putting up 75.9 PPG (95.53 points per 100 possessions).

The team explored a lot of small ball action with a power forward usually playing center surrounded by a ton of shooters. They ran a lot of high screens in order for their big men to extend and pop out for an open jump shot. Ateneo was able to spread the floor because they always had two or three shooters playing at the same time. Their high-scoring mentality was perfect with the emergence of Von Pessumal as a premier threat from beyond the arc and Chris Newsome slashing his way into the paint.

With Kiefer in full Blue Mamba mode destroying everyone in his path, Ateneo became instant contenders and ultimately wound up with the top spot after the eliminations.

Despite being the number one offensive team, Ateneo did have a lot of glaring weaknesses last year. For one, they totally got killed on the defensive end. They allowed 90.35 points per 100 possessions (sixth among eight teams), with opponents shooting 41.7 percent from the field (seventh). In comparison, the eventual champions NU Bulldogs amazingly held opponents to a 34.0 percent clip, tops in the UAAP.

While Ateneo had solid perimeter defenders in Pessumal and Newsome, their interior offense, especially lacking a rim-protecting big man, was poor, almost an automatic two points for the opposing team. This was a team that breezed through the eliminations by simply outscoring their opponents. Come the Final Four however, they weren’t able to keep it up, and were eliminated by eventual champs NU, despite a twice-to-beat advantage.

Season 78 outlook – Ateneo may have a lot of new names on its current roster, but they are some of the best players coming out of high school. Among their prized rookies are last year’s UAAP Juniors MVP Mike Nieto, his twin brother and Mythical Five member Matt Nieto, and two-time UAAP Juniors MVP Jerie Pingoy. Ateneo might have gotten the biggest haul during the offseason aside from probably La Salle.

One of the biggest stories for the Hail Mary squad coming into this year is of course Pingoy, who is finally going to don his blue and white jersey. As mentioned earlier, Pingoy won the MVP award twice during his high school days with the FEU Baby Tamaraws. He’s a guard with great vision and sick handles and will fit perfectly into Ateneo’s system. He may be a bit overweight if you see him for the very first time, but don’t be fooled by his physique. He’s sneaky quick and scary good.

Brothers Matt and Mike Nieto were star players in their own right as they led Ateneo to the UAAP Juniors title last year. Matt plays the point and has a reliable shot from the outside, while his brother Mike usually plays power forward or center. Among all of Ateneo’s recruits, Big Mike will be the one that will have to evolve his game the most. At 6’2”, he’ll have a difficult time battling on the boards against the giants of the UAAP. If he can prove that he can step out of his comfort zone and knock down some perimeter shots like he did during the latter part of his senior year in high school, he’ll be just fine.

And then there’s Hubert Cani. The former NU Bullpup will likewise suit up for the Blue Eagles this season after initially being ineligible to join. At first, the UAAP disallowed Cani to join Ateneo despite the passing of Senator Pia Cayetano’s RA 10676 as the UAAP board claimed that the new law was not retroactive. After Tuesday’s UAAP board meeting, the UAAP board is finally letting the point guard play.

The next question for Ateneo fans though is will this guy fit? During his high school days, Cani was a stud for the Bullpups. He’s a fierce competitor who knows how to utilize his teammates. Because of his leadership, he was able to lead the Bullpups over Thirdy Ravena’s Eaglets back in Season 76 of the Juniors tournament.The point guard position of the Eagles will be steady in the hands of either Cani or Pingoy.

Ateneo remains clearly loaded with talent at the guards and wings position. Despite losing Thirdy Ravena due to academic reasons, his spot can be filled by other reliable players of the team. For the upcoming season, look for Eagles to continue to play their high-octane offense. They will still try to outscore and outshoot their opponents every single game. They’ll use the three-point shot as one of their primary weapons. Last year, Ateneo shot a whopping 99-of-320 triples, or 30.9 percent, second-best in the UAAP. I’m not looking for their attempts to go down given their line-up and style of play, but I do want to see them shoot more efficiently. If they can free up shooters like Pessumal and new guys Aaron Black and the Nieto twins with easier set plays, then they have a chance to shoot the lights out.

They will still try to play four guards out with a big guy manning the middle. Imagine a lineup of Pingoy-Ravena-Pessumal-Nieto with Arvin Tolentino or Ponso Gotladera. That’s a small line-up that can push the ball and be disruptive on the defensive end.

admu-nu f4 pic 3 by roy afable

Season 78 prediction – Finals appearance

Ateneo has the luxury of having a once-in-a-generation type of player in Kiefer Ravena. He’s the best player on their team, and arguably the best player in the entire league as validated by his Season 77 MVP award. That being said, having a guy like Ravena automatically puts you in championship contention. He’s that good, and I’m afraid we haven’t seen his best yet. Ateneo obviously won’t win games purely on Ravena’s terms, but they ALWAYS have a chance to win because they have someone like him. Always.

The drawback here of course is the probability of Ateneo over-relying on The Phenom. The Blue Eagles lost a total of five games last season, four of which came at the hands of NU. The Bulldogs were Ravena’s kryptonite. He was a potent scorer for his team all season long except when it came to Coach Eric Altamirano stingy defense. In total, Kiefer was a disappointing 25-for-100 in his four games versus the eventual champions, including a forgetful 6-for-24 outing in their do-or-die game. If defenses figure out different ways to clamp down on the reigning MVP, Ateneo has no shot at winning the title.

Ateneo is good enough to enter the UAAP Finals. They will remain an offensive juggernaut and Ravena will banner their championship run. I see them finishing relatively well after the eliminations and they might even get a twice-to-beat advantage. However, in the Final Four, where defenses tighten and possessions become more precious, good defenses usually come out on top. That being said, Ateneo might lose in the Finals this year against a better defensive team like DLSU or NU.

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