UAAP Finals Preview: A perfect match

Jude Roque

From the very start, we knew this season was going to be special. It was believed to be the most competitive in recent years, with six teams having almost equal chances of coveting the basketball title. In fact, there was no team that was considered as the hands down heavy favorite. The so called experts debated on who was going to rule this season, and most were not even sure about their choices.

Who would have thought defending five-peat champions Ateneo Blue Eagles would not make it to the semis, and UE too, after bagging the Fil-Oil Cup plum? The last four standing – NU, La Salle, FEU and UST – deserved the crack at the title, and any two of them could have made a dream finale.

But in the end, the two teams that survived were also the toughest this year, having gone through the fire earlier in the tournament. The Green Archers were criticized in several games during the first round for their inability to close out games that they’ve dominated in the first three quarters. The Growling Tigers groped for form in several games due to the absence of the injured Jeric Teng.

La Salle entered the second round with a renewed spirit and has not lost a single game since. UST, the No. 4 squad in the semis defied the odds and defeated the No. 1 team NU Bulldogs twice to return to the UAAP finals.

When the smoke cleared, the two hungriest teams were left to slug it out for the top prize. This makes a perfect match.

So here we go.

The Teng Rivalry. Brothers Jeric and Jeron Teng got what they wished for as both their teams entered the finals, giving an added flavor to end a sensational season. Both are the clear go-to-guys of their respective teams. Jeron leads DLSU in scoring with an average of 15.4 ppg, on top of 7.6 rpg and 3.4 apg. Many times this season, he has emerged as the hero for the Green and White, converting on crucial baskets to tow the Archers to victory. Only in his second year, Jeron has gamely accepted the leader’s role in a team oozing with talent. But Jeric, the more experienced of the two, is more valuable to UST than Jeron to DLSU. Despite being just the fourth top scorer in the Tigers’ roster (12.2 ppg), after Karim Abdul (15.1 ppg), Aljon Mariano (12.7 ppg) and Kevin Ferrer (12.4 ppg), he gets to take the big shots for UST in many occasions, just like in both semis games versus NU. The Tigers struggled when Jeric was sidelined by a shoulder injury. But now he is back in top shape and is raring to lead his team against the Archers and his brother. Advantage: UST

ALSO READ: Sibling rivalry highlights La Salle-UST finals clash

Size Advantage. This clearly goes the Archers’ way. Coach Juno Sauler has the luxury of alternating three dominant post players that can impose their will inside the paint at any given time – Arnold Van Opstal, Jason Perkins and Norbert Torres. This trio combines for 30.3 points per game or close to 40% of the team’s offense. All three can post up well. Perkins and Torres have respectable outside touches. AVO, as Van Opstal is fondly called, is a specialist in getting the offensive boards and scoring on put backs. But UST has the bull-strong Abdul, who can score, rebound, pass and defend. The Cameroonian center has been instrumental for the Tigers this year, leading them in both scoring and rebounding. But UST does not have a stable back up to Abdul, as the team is teeming with undersized post players. Advantage: La Salle.

ALSO READ: Yellow Fever: Kevin Ferrer and huge UST crowd help down NU

Offense. The Green Archers are the second best squad in scoring this season, averaging 77.3 ppg. The Tigers are fifth, with 70.7 ppg. DLSU is probably the most balanced team in the league in terms of offense having threats both inside and outside. Aside from their agile and skilled post players, the Archers also have several gunners – Almond Vosotros, Luigi Dela Paz, Gab Reyes, Matt Salem, Oda Tampus, and even chief playmaker LA Revilla. This is why it’s tough to play La Salle defensively because it attacks you with a two-edged sword. FEU had a good defensive game plan versus La Salle in their playoff match, as it was able to shut down Vosotros and the other usual gunners. But it was Revilla who waxed hot from the outside, dropping 20 points on the Tamaraws. The Tigers however also have their share of deadly snipers in Ferrer, Mariano, Teng and Clark Bautista. The outside offense is pretty even between the two squads. DLSU is second in the league with most assists, 14.6 apg as opposed to UST’s 12.9, and also has more turnover points. Advantage: La Salle

Defense. UST is No.2 in the league in defense, allowing opponents an average of 67.3 ppg. La Salle is fifth, with 73 ppg. Abdul is such a huge defensive presence for the Tigers as he offers excellent help defense and he can also defend the post well. In the knock out encounter versus NU last Saturday, the Tigers kept the Bulldogs at bay in the payoff period with their relentless defense. They also have good-sized wing players that can shackle the opponents’ main gunners. Advantage: UST

Bench Depth. La Salle has probably the deepest bench in the league. Former high school stars like Reyes, Tampus, Robert Bollick and Kib Montalbo are seeing limited minutes on the floor because of such a deep rotation. This is one reason why the Archers have outlasted the other teams that fared better in the first round. On the other hand, UST does not enjoy a very deep bench. Only six players are averaging over 20 minutes per game – Abdul, Mariano, Teng, Ferrer, Bautista and Eduardo Daquiaog. A bright spot for the Tigers is the emergence of rookie point guard Sheak Sheriff, who had six points, five assists and two steals versus the Bulldogs last Saturday. DLSU is also fourth in the league in bench scoring, with 23.8 ppg, while UST is eighth, with 18.3 ppg. Advantage: La Salle.

Experience. The Tigers figured in the finals last year versus the Blue Eagles and gave the defending champs a run for their money. Coach Pido Jarencio has been to the UAAP finals twice before, including a successful 2006 campaign during his rookie year. His boys are just as experienced in tough games, and getting the chance to redeem themselves from last season is something they look forward too. On the other hand, the Green Archers have certainly overachieved this year after a luck-luster start. Having a young roster, the Taft-based squad was built to dominate starting next year. But it seems the Archers are ahead of schedule and are seeking to regain the UAAP title they last held in 2007. First year coach Sauler will once again be tested in the finals, and so are rest of the team who will be playing in the championship for the very first time. Advantage: UST.

Heart. Obviously, both La Salle and UST displayed their huge hearts this season, having survived the other tough teams in the league. Both camps are hungry for the title and are prepared to spill their guts out to win it. And so are both the La Sallian and Thomasian communities, who are expected to go all out to support their respective teams. Advantage: Even.

These two schools were the last to hold the UAAP men’s basketball crown before the five-year reign of Ateneo. Now they will engage in an exciting battle to get back what they lost to the Eagles.

It’s hard to predict the winner because of the very balanced match-up. But I think this series will go the full route.