UST didn’t fall short, they’re actually ahead of schedule

Coming up short isn’t always the end. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning of something better, newer, and unimaginable. The UST Growling Tigers may have lost in the Finals of the UAAP, but this only sets them up for a brighter future ahead.

This batch of Growling Tigers actually surpassed all kinds of expectations set for them before the season began. When all the hype and attention during the preseasin were focused on UP (reloading with Rivero and Paras), La Salle (three one-and-dones) and Ateneo (the three-peat quest), UST quietly brought in players that fit their Mayhem System.

It’s like people forgot they were in the playoff hunt until the final two games of Season 81. They also forgot Aldin Ayo was at the helm. That’s exactly how Coach Aldin likes it. He likes reminding everyone of just how good a team he’s coaching can be.

Ayo, despite his young age, is a tried and tested coach. He’s brought a winning mentality and attitude to just about wherever he takes his talents to.

He was never shy to admit that unlike his college teams before – both of which were full of talented players and solid veterans – the Growling Tigers would take much, much more time to gel and transform into who they wanted to be. Unlike his previous stints, he had to build this UST team from scratch as he recruited underrated players from the that would mesh well with the veterans he decided to keep on the roster.

For some coaches, a program usually takes somewhere between three to five years to come to fruition. Cases in point: Norman Black took four seasons before he won his first title to Ateneo. Nash Racela also took another four before winning it for FEU in 2015. Bo Perasol, despite not winning it all last year, took three years to bring UP to the playoffs.

Ayo however, weaves his magic almost instantaneously.

Everyone saw it with the Letran and La Salle. But even he admits that this UST team is nowhere near those teams in terms of talent and experience. But he still continues to create wonders even in his latest stint.

By sticking to his guns, Ayo was actually able to speed up the process of success. After two forgettable years that saw the school finish its worst in quite possibly their whole history, it’s only taken the same amount of time for him to bring this program back to the top and into the public’s consciousness.

As great a coach as he is, one can’t also help but think how fortunate UST is as they got some much needed boost from their juniors program. Rarely does a UAAP school get so lucky in getting two MVP-caliber players in back-to-back years. The returning CJ Cansino was a Rookie of the Year contender last year due to his stellar play. Mark Nonoy bagged the award Cansino missed out on this season.

Cansino has been a revelation since the beginning of his rookie season last year, even posting the first ever triple-double for a freshman in UAAP since 2003. If he hadn’t torn his ACL in their second to the last match of the season, the story for those Tigers may have been different.

Nonoy on the other hand, was an automatic triple-double machine in his final year for the Tiger Cubs in the UAAP’s Juniors Division. The young blur did not miss a beat this Season 82 as he blitzed the league with his out of this world athleticism and agility. The heart he showed in the Finals against the behemoths of Ateneo was more than enough proof that UST has found its successor to the graduating Renzo Subido.

It’s not just their young core that helped with UST’s rapid rise to success. They also took a gamble and brought in the would-be MVP.

Despite being the shortest foreign player in the league this year, the Tigers’ Chabi Chabi Yo sure as hell proved he doesn’t need the height to make a mark in the best collegiate league. The guy’s motor, intelligence, and great hands are rare for a foreign student-athlete such as him.

If you’ve followed Ayo’s coaching journey, an Aldin Ayo team will never be complete without its fair share of unknown talents and recruits.

Rhenz Abando surprised everyone with his outstanding shooting, athleticism, and knack for blocking shots. The 21-year-old from La Union is yet another proof of how good Ayo is at taking talent from the provinces and bringing them to Manila to flourish. Despite the off-court issues during Season 82, it looks as if Abando will now definitely stay put in the Tigers’ lair after their Cinderella run to the Finals.

Sherwin Concepcion was another revelation for Ayo’s squad. He simply shot the lights out from just about anywhere. It doesn’t matter wherever he is on the floor, whether it’s a simple pick-and-pop, kick out from their slashers, or a long offensive rebound, Concepcion is ready to let it fly with or without a defender in his face. He has one of the most beautiful strokes for a big man in the league.

Ira Bataller is one of those role players coaches dream to have in their team. Tough, fearless, and does whatever is asked of him to do. From giving screens to fend off the quickest guards, to trying to hold his ground against giants like Bright Akhuetie and Angelo Kouame, Bataller never says a word and just does his job.

Dave Ando is another serviceable big guy Ayo brought out of nowhere. Teams were caught off guard with this guy’s buckets this Season 82, scoring from put backs, midrange twos, and unexpected hook shots. His length and height are also helpful on the defensive end. And just like any Ayo coached player, he knows where to be at just about the right time throughout a game.

Cansino, Nonoy, Chabi Yo, Concepcion, Ando and Bataller will all be back next season. Even with his Finals core basically intact, Ayo won’t be taking it easy. For sure Ayo will make sure his team will be better come the next. He’ll definitely bring in more recruits, whether it’s the best player from Mindanao or another role player who suits his needs from as far as North Luzon.

There may be an argument as to just bring back most, if not all, from this year’s squad. But that would be the total opposite of how Coach Aldin likes to do things. Knowing him, he’ll put out a squad that will work and make the other team work harder for the full 40 minutes. It won’t matter if those players played in the Finals this season or not.

The past 24 months since Ayo’s hiring have nothing been but a wild ride for the black and gold faithful. It’s just remarkable how UST’s development and growth is way ahead of schedule, even for Ayo’s standards.

In their final post-match interview for Season 82 after succumbing to the Blue Eagles, Ayo was adamant in saying that he is definitely staying put to help this school achieve their goal and end their title drought since 2006. There’s nothing more comfortable to hear if you’re a UST student, fan, or alumni at this point.

A better, experienced, and wiser UST Growling Tigers team is ready to claw its way out of the middle of the pack and establish itself as a perennial title contender in the years to come. Given Ayo’s resume, that title might come sooner than everyone expected.