WHAT IF... Ben Mbala played his last year in La Salle

Norman Lee Benjamin Riego on Jun 10, 2020 03:51 PM
WHAT IF... Ben Mbala played his last year in La Salle
(Photos by Josh Albelda)

History lesson: Ben Mbala was one of the most dominant - if not the most dominant - forces the UAAP has ever seen.

Winning a championship as well as back-to-back MVPs, Mbala was, hands down, the best player in all of college in his two years suiting up for De La Salle University.

Technically, he had one more playing year, but decided against it to take back control of his career.

This decision, coming right after the Green Archers got dethroned by archrival Ateneo de Manila University in a thrilling three-game Finals.

That would just be the first of three championships in a row for the Blue Eagles who swept the University of the Philippines and the University of Sto. Tomas the following years.

Meanwhile, without the Cameroonian powerhouse, the Taft-based team fell short of the playoffs the following years.

Now, the green and white is trying to barge back into the playoff picture with a fourth coach in four years.

It is far from a certainty that Louie Gonzalez, who replaced Aldin Ayo, would be able to hold off Gian Nazario - and active consultant Jermaine Byrd - and then Derrick Pumaren if he had led La Salle to the Final Four in UAAP 81.

What is a certainty, however, is that with Mbala back in the fold, they are locks for the Final Four.

And so, what if "Big Ben" played his last year in La Salle?

Ateneo would remain the top-seed while Adamson University would fall to three and the University of the Philippines would fall to four.

Mbala and company would then stake claim to the second-seed and the twice-to-beat advantage it entails before taking care of business yet again against the Soaring Falcons.

In the other bracket, the Blue Eagles end the Cinderella story of the Fighting Maroons who would play in their first Final Four in 21 years, but would still be looking for their first Finals since 1986.

With that, the rivalry trilogy would be set in motion - Ateneo-La Salle for all the glory for the third year in a row.

And for the 6-foot-8 center, the rubber match would have been theirs. Asked in the inaugural episode of The Prospects Pod if they would have reclaimed the title if he had played his last year, he answered, "Yeah. I think so."

Our own thought experiment, however, thinks otherwise and has the Blue Eagles getting the better of the Green Archers once more.

The arrival of Rookie of the Year Ange Kouame is a brand new tall task to face for Season MVP Mbala.

Of course, the now-three-time MVP still finds a way against the inexperienced Ivorian, but Ateneo's total team effort would still prove to be too much for La Salle.

According to Mbala, if he had stayed, Ricci Rivero would have stayed as well and not taken his talents to UP. That means that Brent Paraiso would remain as well.

A core of Mbala, Rivero, Paraiso, Andrei Caracut, Aljun Melecio, and Santi Santillan would be really nasty, but that also means Justine Baltazar would not get the room he needs to grow.

They would fight with their all, for sure, but would also ultimately succumb to the Blue Eagles' otherworldly - and quite frankly, unfair - depth and balance.

In the end, Ateneo still goes on to a three-peat, and counting, while La Salle just falls short for the second straight year.

Mbala moves on to showcasing his skills overseas - and moves on to ribbing Kiefer Ravena that it's just a matter of time before the butt heads in the PBA.

There would also be no more questions about how Kouame would have fared against the Green Archers' best foreign student-athlete.

For his part, however, Mbala said that individual comparisons do not matter in basketball. "People tell me that I were there, it would (have been) a different story, but I don't do comparisons. It's not a one-on-one game, it's five-on-five," he said.

He then continued, "It was not I will take the rebound and do everything I want. No, it's not that. It's not about the size, it's about the system."

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.

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