2019: To sweep or not to sweep in collegiate basketball
Norman Lee Benjamin Riego on Dec 23, 2019 08:17 PM
(Photos by Arvin Lim, Josh Albelda)
The 2019 collegiate basketball season will always be remembered as the time when all of NCAA defending champion San Beda, UAAP Men’s defending champion Ateneo, and UAAP Women’s defending champion National U were trying for season sweeps.
Two of them did it, one of them didn’t.
All in all, though, that storyline that had something to do with history defined NCAA 95 and UAAP 82.
A tale of two leagues – when it comes to foreign student-athletes
NCAA 95 was the last season wherein the Grand Old League’s 10 member-schools were still able to trot out foreign student-athletes. This, after more than a decade of the likes of Sam Ekwe, Sudan Daniel, Allwell Oraeme, Prince Eze, and Mike Nzeusseu setting the bar higher for big men.
Over in UAAP 82, Beninese ball of energy Soulemane Chabi Yo and Ivorian tower Ange Kouame jostled throughout the tournament for the recognition as top individual player. In the end, Chabi Yo followed in the footsteps of Cameroon’s Ben Mbala and Nigeria’s Bright Akhuetie as Season MVPs.
The NCAA will go local from here on out while the UAAP will still parade promising prospects from overseas – what’s certain is that both leagues will go all-out to ascertain that the action will never stop.
Rising stars become shining stars
Robert Bolick left San Beda with a big, big hole at point guard – only for Evan Nelle to waste no time proving the Red Lions remain in good hands.
UST’s fast and furious attack needed a fast and furious playmaker – and the Growling Tigers got just that in the form of Mark Nonoy.
In his first year as FEU’s lead guard, L-Jay Gonzales showed time and time again why he was always seen as the next one in the Tamaraws’ long, long line of great guards.
The story of the season in terms of guards, however, has got to be Fran Yu who came out of nowhere to energize Letran to a pleasant surprise of a championship.
2019 was the first time in a long, long while – or maybe even ever – that UP was considered a shoo-in for the Final Four.
The Fighting Maroons had just ended a 32-year Finals absence and a 21-year playoff drought last year and came into this season still with Bright Akhuetie, Jun Manzo, and Gomez de Liano brothers Javi and Juan, but also now with Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero.
In all, State U lived up to the hype and made it back-to-back Final Four appearances, but at the same time, fell short of fulfilling the promise of its fully loaded line-up.
Still, continued contention is nothing but a welcome development for Diliman which had been experiencing dark, dark days for far too long.
Gilas Pilipinas calling
With Tab Baldwin overseeing the program, Gilas Pilipinas will try once more to take a long-term, big-picture view – especially with the 2023 FIBA World Cup looming large.
With that, the American-Kiwi mentor tapped on five collegiate standouts to form the foundation of the national team – Ateneo’s Isaac Go and Nieto twins Mike and Matt, UE’s Rey Suerte, and San Sebastian’s Allyn Bulanadi.
And with that, the Philippines is yet again leaning on the best of the best of collegiate basketball to wear the flag and do the country proud.
It’s a new day, it’s a new generation
The NCAA hit home runs in each and every one of its coaching changes.
Bonnie Tan raised banner no. 18 for Letran in his first year. Randy Alcantara has Mapua prepped and primed to take flight. Louie Gonzalez has given JRU an attitude. Oliver Bunyi and Cholo Martin have EAC and Arellano, respectively, headed in the right direction.
The same cannot be said for the UAAP as both of its new head coaches found themselves on the outside looking into the playoff picture.
Jermaine Byrd had La Salle fighting, but ultimately failed to find a finishing kick. UE also kept coming with the leadership of Lawrence Chongson, but eventually ended eliminated.
Teeth out, claws out, all-out
UST has a proud program in basketball, but only had nine wins to show in 42 games from 2016 to 2018
That all came to an end in 2019 as Aldin Ayo had the Growling Tigers, well, growling from the get-go.
Bombing away at their opponents and forcing them to keep up, Espana made its mark as a legitimate contender that made it all the way to the Finals.
There, they were sent away by Ateneo’s championship-winning machine, but the future remains bright for the black and gold with all of Season MVP Chabi Yo, Rookie of the Year Nonoy, captain CJ Cansino, Brent Paraiso, and Sherwin Concepcion, among others, coming back for more.
Fitting farewell for Ateneo’s championship core
Thirdy Ravena. Isaac Go. Mike Nieto. Matt Nieto. Adrian Wong.
Those five left Ateneo on top of the world – having claimed a three-peat as well as completed a historic season sweep.
And without a doubt, those five were also the catalysts in this new golden age for the Blue Eagles – a golden age which has seen them set and then raise the standard for team glory time and time again.
Katipunan will have a tough time moving forward from those five, but at the same time, having the likes of Ange Kouame, Will Navarro, Gian Mamuyac, and SJ Belangel just waiting in the wings makes it easier.
Who run the world?
National U has not lost a game in 2,270 days. National U has not lost a game in 74 months. National U has not lost a game in six years.
The last time head coach Pat Aquino had to lift up the spirits of his Lady Bulldogs was back in October 5, 2013 when they bowed to La Salle in the winner-take-all Finals Game 3.
Since then, the blue and gold has been the gold standard of women’s basketball all while giving its opponents the blues.
That didn’t change this year as behind Jack Animam and Rhena Itesi as well as welcome additions Kelli Hayes and Camille Clarin, National U continued to have all the answers – even for back-to-back Season MVP Grace Irebu and UST.
Shock the system
Letran was, in no way, given a chance to deny archrival San Beda’s bid for a perfect season – or much more, win the championship altogether.
But the Knights didn’t listen and took that chance themselves, catching just everybody by surprise by taking Game 1 and dealing the Red Lions their first defeat in the season.
San Beda bounced back in Game 2, but in the decider, Jerrick Balanza, Bonbon Batiller, Larry Muyang, and Yu just willed Letran to the title.
Now, the Knights are kings for the 18th time – and indeed, they had no import, but had no problem.
Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.