Go big or go home for the UP Fighting Maroons this Season 78

Paolo Mariano on Sep 04, 2015 09:18 PM
Go big or go home for the UP Fighting Maroons this Season 78
“Madaming natatawa at nagugulat kapag sinasabi kong (A lot of people laugh and get shocked when I say) we’re targeting the Final Four. Huwag sila magulat (They shouldn’t be shocked). I can see how hungry the team is. We believe we can do it.” --- UP coach Rensy Bajar

The University of the Philippines (UP) bonfire last season was a milestone. It marked the end of the team’s 27-game losing streak after defeating Adamson University. Even non-UP fans extended congratulations. But in hindsight, it was a backhanded compliment. It’s like giving a student a pat on the back for not getting a zero on an exam.

But for the Fighting Maroons, who have endured countless campaigns of futility, they’ll take whatever they can. After all, a win for them doesn’t come every season. Two wins? That’s akin to discovering the lost treasures of Egypt.

That’s why when new head coach Rensy Bajar said UP is aiming for four—not four wins, but the Final Four—raised eyebrows were aplenty. Others dismissed it as mere lip service from a brash tactician looking to stir something up.

But the former PBA player doesn’t listen to skeptics. He doesn’t care for mediocrity either. While past UP coaches were already happy with a couple wins, he’s all about setting lofty standards.

“Madaming natatawa at nagugulat kapag sinasabi kong (A lot of people laugh and get shocked when I say) we’re targeting the Final Four,” said Bajar. “Huwag sila magulat (They shouldn’t be shocked). I can see how hungry the team is. We believe we can do it.”

Believe.

That’s the first thing, isn’t it?

But it’s difficult to believe if you’re coming from a one-win season, only beating a team that scored 25 points in a single game and then losing to that very same squad in the second round.

Past UP teams have also believed. Past mentors have rhapsodized about slaying giants as well. But it always ends the same way for the Fighting Maroons—the poster boys for unfilled potential. 

So is it just false hope?

“I’m a dreamer. Kung hindi ako maniniwala, hindi talaga kami mananalo (If I don’t believe, we’ll never going to win),” said Bajar, UP’s third head coach in as many years. “I know how tough the UAAP is. But I’m up to the challenge.”

Coaching the Fighting Maroons isn’t just a challenge, it’s a death wish. Pardon the exaggeration but the team truly has a lot of holes—emphasis on the plural.

“Last year’s team lacked able big men. The maturity of the players (isn’t there). They’re not cohesive. They didn’t adapt into their roles. They weren’t in sync,” lamented Bajar. “That’s why we always tell them to have a selfless attitude. They can’t play for themselves.”

Problem No. 1 for UP is its almost non-existent defense, giving up a league-worst 74.9 PPG on 44.0% shooting last year. That’s why halting opponents is the top priority this Season 78 and it’s not going to be pretty.

“Wala akong pakialam kahit ilang beses ka maka-shoot (I don’t care how many times you’ve scored), if you’re not working hard on defense, you’ll stay on the bench,” said Bajar. “I like physical play. Ayoko ng lalambut-lambot (I don’t want soft players).”

But where will the offense come from?

Last season, the team only put up 62.9 PPG on a 33.7% marksmanship. A quick perusal of the roster points to senior JR Gallarza, who averaged a career-high 11.6 PPG last year. He, however, isn’t the type who can easily manufacture baskets. Same with veteran guards Dave Moralde and Henry Asilum. The unceremonious exit of Mikee Reyes and the absence of Kyles Lao due to an ACL injury compound the problem even more.
 
As of now, there’s no clear answer. The UP brain trust can only hope that the defense will fuel everything.

“Our offense will come from our defense. Right now, we really don’t have a main offensive weapon. But at the same time, we don’t want to emphasize scoring so there wouldn’t be no selfishness,” said Bajar, who starred for San Beda College in the late 90s.

A clear positive though for State U is the return of Jett Manuel and Paul Desiderio. The former had a two-year hiatus focusing on his academics, while the latter spent a year playing for Batang Gilas, where he was one of the more productive players.

There’s also the touted rookie tandem of Janjan Jaboneta, the reigning CESAFI Juniors MVP, and Pio Longa. Both starred for Sacred Heart School-Ateneo de Cebu and they are expected to play considerable minutes with their quickness and range at the guard spots.

“The good thing about our rookies is they know their role. Every time we call their number, they’re ready. They know they’re part of the supporting cast right now. But they’ll provide the energy,” proudly said Bajar.

As this year’s host, UP is more pressured to perform well. The team has worked extra hard preparing for the season, joining various leagues, including one in Taiwan. Off-season tournaments never mirror the heavy competition in the UAAP, but every minute spent together on the court will only bode well for the young Fighting Maroons.

Also, they believe—there’s that belief again—that it’s an even playing field this season, giving them more chances to hack out upsets.

“(The competition) this year is balanced. There’s no clear super team aside from FEU (Far Eastern University). Nothing is impossible. We just need to believe we can (win),” said Bajar.
 
As the joke goes, a game against UP is a bonus stage. It’s an automatic W. In the last five seasons, the team has lost 66 of 70 games.

While it’s clear that the improvement will not happen overnight or even after many nights, it’s clear that the Fighting Maroons just don’t want to embarrass their selves anymore.

“We know we’re coming from the bottom. That’s our motivation. We haven’t proven anything yet. But every game is an opportunity for us to show that UP is a winner,” said Bajar.

Thumping optimism every start of a new season then seeing the glass become empty in the end must be terribly frustrating.

But nothing good ever comes easy.

With a new coach, a new system, and a new goal, regardless of how lofty it is, the Fighting Maroons will continue their quest to bring respectability back in Diliman.

“Makikipagpalitan kami ng mukha (Going up against UP is going to be tough),” said Bajar. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park. Matalo man kami, dadaan muna kayo sa butas ng karayom (Even if we lose, you’ll have to go through a needle hole first).”

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