Ateneo Blue Eagles to fight through inexperience in Season 78

Paolo Mariano on Aug 29, 2015 03:09 PM
Ateneo Blue Eagles to fight through inexperience
"Kiefer’s load will be even heavier this year. He knows it. Malaki trabaho niya. Alam niya na marami siyang dapat gawin. Hindi dahil gusto niya, pero dahil kailangan (He knows his work is cut out for him. Not because he wants to, but because he needs to).” --- Ateneo coach Bo Perasol.

Ateneo de Manila University once again made it to the UAAP history books last season—as an off-putting footnote.

After topping the elimination round, the Blue Eagles were sent crashing back to their nests by eventual champion National University (NU) in the Final Four, becoming the second top seed in the league to be defeated by the fourth seed.

One would think that the Blue Eagles will head into Season 78 with an extra large chip on their shoulders. Why wouldn’t they? They got embarrassed. Like a bully getting beaten by the bullied. The team, however, feels that holding any rancor will only serve as a distraction. After all, the goal is not to beat NU. It is to get better overall.

“No one expected us to be number one (last season). We overachieved, actually. The match-up with NU was very difficult for us. (But) we don’t count it as a failure. In fact, it was a learning experience for us,” said head coach Bo Perasol.

With a young line-up composed of seven rookies, the learning will continue this season. In a short league like the UAAP, that doesn’t exactly sound well.

Luckily, one of Ateneo’s newcomers, Jerie Pingoy, is no stranger to high level competition. The two-time Juniors MVP and former delegate to a global basketball camp in California will finally suit up for the Blue and White after serving his controversial two-year residency.

“Malaking tulong si Pingoy (He’ll be a huge help). After the veterans, he has the most experience. I expect him to contribute,” said Perasol.

But while the flashy 5-foot-8 combo guard can make an immediate impact, like most neophytes, he’ll also experience bumps on the road.

“We ask big from Pingoy. Pero hingan mo man ng laro, may learning curve pa rin (But even if we ask him to step up, the learing curve is still there). Will he be able to respond to the pressure? The noise? The bigger players? There are a lot of factors,” said Perasol.

Another key addition is Chibueze Ikeh, who will bolster Ateneo’s frontline, the team’s frail spot last season. The 6-foot-8 Nigerian is expected to improve the squad’s rebounding after only averaging 41.6 RPG last season, fourth worst in the league.

“May pantapat na kami sa ibang malalaki. His skills aren’t at par with the other imports, but if he can focus on his rebounding and defense, he’ll be okay,” said Perasol.

Aaron Black and UAAP Juniors MVP Matt Nieto are good acquisitions but it remains to be seen if they can produce right away. The last-minute exclusion of their fellow rookie Hubert Cani, declared ineligible by the UAAP Board due to residency issues, is a blow considering he’s tagged as an immediate contributor. The team, however, isn’t crying over spilled milk.

“Our rookies are a critical part of our campaign. But their inexperience is also a concern. Of course, you can’t deny our anxiousness about them. It’s a disadvantage. But what can we do? Our job is to make do with what we have,” admitted Perasol.

Well, fortunately for them, they have Kiefer Ravena.

“The Phenom” won last season’s MVP plum in dominating fashion, averaging league-highs of 21.2 PPG and 5.6 APG on top of 5.9 RPG and 1.5 SPG. He did so much for the Blue Eagles that discovering he also hand-washed their dirty uniforms wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

But even though his heroic exploits were admirable, it was also a double-edged sword for the Loyola-based squad. While the Blue Eagles found success in his do-it-all approach, it also became their undoing in the Final Four when he was handcuffed by the Bulldogs’ tightfisted defense.

That’s why the challenge for the rest of the Blue Eagles is to help carry the cudgels, especially since they lost considerable firepower and stability with the graduation of Chris Newsome and Nico Elorde and the absence of Thirdy Ravena due to academic deficiencies.

“Kiefer’s load will be even heavier this year. He knows it. Malaki trabaho niya. Alam niya na marami siyang dapat gawin. Hindi dahil gusto niya, pero dahil kailangan (He knows his work is cut out for him. Not because he wants to, but because he needs to),” said Perasol.

“The critical part is how he’ll be unburdened by his teammates. How they’ll share the responsibility. How they’ll ease up the load,” added the third-year tactician.

Now in his swan song, the 21-year-old Ravena is expected to pour his heart out every game, considering how competitive and emotional he is on the court. With his impending exit and with no surefire successor in sight, this might be the best chance for the Blue Eagles to take the UAAP crown back to Loyola Heights.

“Our desire is as high as other people’s expectations since it’s Kiefer’s last year. We’ll give ourselves a good chance to make it all the way. It’s a tall order with our team’s composition, but the desire is there,” said Perasol.

Expected to provide support are seniors Von Pessumal and Gwyne Capacio, the much-improved Ponso Gotladera, and reigning Rookie of the Year Arvin Tolentino.

Putting the ball in the hoop was not a problem for the Blue Eagles last year as they led the league in scoring with 75.9 PPG. But more than half of it came from Ravena, Newsome, and Elorde. That’s why the aforementioned players need to ante up, most notably in terms of inside scoring.

“We improved a lot but so did the other teams. The fact remains, malalakas pa rin ang kalaban (The opposition is strong). But it’s our job to deal with adversities. Our players just need accept the responsibility. That’s the key to our season,” said Perasol.

Most prognosticators tag the Blue Eagles as one of the favorites. As long as Ravena is in the lineup, any team can contend for a championship. But like most teams, even though it’s hard to buy, they are downplaying their chances because of their young motley crew.

One thing’s for sure though, every Ateneo game will be a competitive one.

“We’ll try really hard. The energy and effort will always be there. We’re optimistic that we can do it regardless of our shortcomings,” said Perasol. “Every year is a new challenge. There’s no constant in the UAAP. Ateneo expects excellence so gagawa kami ng paraan (we’ll find a way). We’ll fight with whatever we have.”

The Ateneo Blue Eagles start their campaign against the FEU Tamaraws on Sept. 6, Sunday.

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