UAAP Preview: Long road back to the top starts this season for Ateneo

The end of a dynasty is never pretty.

After winning five straight titles in the UAAP, the Ateneo De Manila Blue Eagles said goodbye to Norman Black. Last year, the Eagles were still hopeful that they could still compete against the best teams in the league with new coach Bo Perasol.

However, a pre-season injury to ace Kiefer Ravena dealt Ateneo a stumbling start. They found it hard to get their rhythm all season long as they struggled to put wins together. In the last game of the eliminations, Ateneo was defeated by eventual finalist UST.

After five long years at the top, Ateneo failed to reach the Final Four last season.

Heading into the new UAAP wars, Perasol is hopeful about his team’s chances but he’s also aware of their limitations.

“Half of our players are either rookies of sophomores so talagang malaking challenge yun,” the second-year coach said.

“If you’re talking about potential, it’s definitely there and maganda naman yung programa in place. But the here and now, that’s going to be the challenge but we’re not saying we’re not going to fight for it.”

The Eagles retooled in the summer scooping up Arvin Toltentino from San Beda and Hubert Cani from National University, two of the sought after high school prospects. Perasol also surrounded himself with veteran assistant coaches in Ronnie Magsanoc and Ricky Dandan.

“I think that ang pinaka disadvantage namin, yung pinaka glaring ay kung hindi magiging eligible yung dalawang point guards, si Hubert Cani at si Jerie Pingoy,” Perasol rued.

Because of the current UAAP rules, Pingoy and Cani will have to sit out this season as their respective high schools refused to sign their release papers.

“Pangalawa, yung inexperience namin. That’s also the reason why hindi kami naglaro sa ibang tournaments kasi three months ago lang kami talaga nabuo,” the coach added. “Malaki yung changes kasi hindi lang naman yung bagong system yung ituturo mo e. Pati yung familiarity nila sa isa’t isa kailangan rin maayos. Right now, we’re trying to fast track everything. We just want everyone to be more familiar with each other.”

With a slim rotation in point guards and centers, Perasol is all in on his wings.

“Nag-tweak kami ng opensa. The first thing we need to do is forget na may kulang kaming player. We can’t allow ourselves to think na wala kaming point guard kasi magiging excuse yun. So kung sinong yung pwedeng mag-point, may it be Kiefer Ravena or Chris Newsome, we would have to find a way to make it work with them. We need to run our system even if we don’t have a dominant point guard,” Perasol said.

“Katulad ng lack namin sa point guard, we have to address our lack of bigs. If we’re going to play half-court offense, madaling depensahan yan. So we need to open up the floor by speeding the game up kasi our strength will be on our wings.”

The Ateneo coach thinks that the defending champions are still the team to beat this season.

“Palagay ko La Salle pa rin yung favorite. All those teams that have imports mahihirapan kami,” he admitted. “FEU, NU, UE, and UST are all strong teams.

However, Perasol is still hopeful that his squad can pull of some surprises.

“In terms of health, we’re much better now compared to last year. Except for minor injuries, wala kaming problema ngayon,” Perasol said. “Ang gusto ko sa kanila ngayon ay no excuses. We all know we are young and inexperienced but we will not give out excuses. Even though we’re young, all of our players come from good systems with winning traditions.”