2018: The year of collegiate champions and people's champions
Norman Lee Benjamin Riego on Dec 22, 2018 08:29 PM
All of us learned that it all begins here before experiencing unparalleled heights in the NCAA and the UAAP.
From Katipunan to Mendiola, from Intramuros to San Marcelino, and from Morayta to Las Pinas, the year 2018 will be tough to top.
That goes for both the NCAA and the UAAP as both leagues learned that it all begins here before experiencing unparalleled heights.
Now, it’s high time for look back at the year that was in collegiate basketball.
New year, new regime
Before we can look back, however, we first need to look ahead as several new eras are already underway even before the year has ended.
Over at La Salle, American coach Jermaine Byrd has been tapped with the hopes he can do to the Green Archers what American-Kiwi mentor Tab Baldwin has done for Ateneo.
The same task of a turnaround is also what’s expected from the new hires of Mapua in Randy Alcantara, EAC in Oliver Bunyi, and Arellano in Cholo Martin.
Alongside talented tacticians, however, teams need talented players.
Fortunately for a handful of teams, they got just that from their first-year players.
Ateneo won back-to-back championships all while featuring a brand new paint presence in Ivorian tower and Rookie of the Year Ange Kouame.
While being a force is already a given for any 6-foot-11 player like Kouame, both CJ Cansino and Dave Ildefonso also exceeded expectations in their rookie seasons for UST and NU, respectively.
Over in the NCAA, Filipino-American high-flyer Justin Gutang propelled CSB just right outside the playoffs while Rookie of the Year Larry Muyang helped re-establish Letran as a powerhouse.
The Walls of Intramuros are up again
Speaking of Letran, it’s nothing but a welcome development to see them contending once more for the first time since their magical season and championship in 2015.
Head coach Jeff Napa, at long last, has a team he can call his own and the Knights look like they will be big, big threats for the foreseeable future.
Of course, size was never the advantage for neighboring LPU and rather, they have run-and-gunned their way to back-to-back Finals.
With new head coach Randy Alcantara, Mapua is nothing but hoping it can finally catch up with its fellow Intramuros occupants.
Started from the bottom, now we’re here
Just four years ago, Adamson and UP were cellar-dwellers and were fighting over wins that were meaningless in the standings, but meaningful to their morale.
Now, the two teams have just figured in classic semifinals series with both games going down the wire.
In the end, it was the Fighting Maroons who advanced to the Finals, but the Soaring Falcons have nothing to be ashamed of, especially as they were one of only two teams that had downed champion Ateneo.
The on-court action in both the NCAA and the UAAP was, without a doubt, intense.
The same can be said, however, for the off-court happenings.
The NCAA season started with San Sebastian being forced to forfeit a couple of its wins due to RK Ilagan playing in a commercial league, continued with Perpetual also being questioned about having players who suited up in a different commercial league, and ended with LPU main man CJ Perez getting suspended in Game 1 of the Finals.
The UAAP had its share of colorful events with Thirdy Ravena getting suspended and therefore, getting disqualified from individual awards as well as FEU being indirectly helped into the playoffs by the untimely injuries to Adamson’s Jerrick Ahanmisi and Sean Manganti.
2 MVPs, 1 alma mater
It’s a universally accepted truth that Prince Eze deserved the NCAA MVP and Bright Akhuetie deserved the UAAP MVP.
What’s funny is that, at one point in time, those two were actually teammates over at Perpetual.
Yes, the Altas had both Nigerian tower Eze and Nigerian powerhouse Akhuetie seeing action for them for two seasons. Even more, they were also teammates with now Ginebra star Scottie Thompson for one year.
Of course, the NCAA MVP and the UAAP MVP agreed that they had to go their separate ways so that both of them can spread their wings and fly.
Good thing they did. Good thing they did.
Just another season in the office for San Beda
So much happened in the NCAA season – LPU’s continued contention, Letran and Perpetual’s resurgence, CSB and San Sebastian being darkhorses.
In the end, however, San Beda left no doubt that it was still their kingdom by blanking the Pirates in the Finals.
With that, the Red Lions extended their league-leading title total to 22 – with half coming in the last 13 years.
We can talk about all the teams and all the players we want, but at the end of the day, the NCAA title will still go through Mendiola.
Blue Eagle, still the king
At the end of the first round of the UAAP season, Ateneo found itself in a three-way tie for the top spot with FEU and Adamson.
By virtue of having lost to both the Tamaraws and the Soaring Falcons, the Blue Eagles were actually in third-place entering the second round.
From there, however, Ateneo never lost – and was never even threatened – all the way to back-to-back championships.
They did that, with court general Matt Nieto injured for most of the second round and do-it-all forward Thirdy Ravena incurring a suspension as well.
Come the Finals, however, Ateneo just unleashed both Nieto and Ravena and ultimately, took the fight out of UP.
Her-story for Lady Bulldogs
These are the most important numbers for the NU Lady Bulldogs at the end of the UAAP season: five straight championships, 80 wins in a row.
Yes, NU has not dropped any of its last 80 games dating back to 2014.
With that, they not only eclipsed the 72-game winning streak of the Adamson softball squad, once the longest winning streak in league history, but also ran way past it.
Oh, that winning streak – and the five-peat, for that matter – is still ongoing.
That’s short of saying that the Lady Bulldogs will only continue to make history next year.
Indeed, up was where the Fighting Maroons went
From 2007 to 2015, UP only won 13 times out of 126 games. Those days have been self-depreciatingly called “the dark days.”
In the recently concluded UAAP season, the Fighting Maroons finally found light at the end of the tunnel.
First, at 7-6 with one game to go in the elimination round, they already registered their best showing in 14 seasons.
Then, at 8-6 to end the elims, they claimed their first Final Four berth since 1997.
Then, in discarding Adamson’s twice-to-beat advantage, they won in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.
Then, by doubling down against the Soaring Falcons, they climbed to their first Finals since 1986.
In the end, UP’s Cinderella run didn’t get a happy ending at the hands of Ateneo.
But maybe, just maybe, the Fighting Maroons actually aren’t Cinderella.
Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.