You know the UAAP pre-season is already in full swing when reports are swirling online about schools snagging blue-chip recruits in both domestic and international arenas. Curiously, the same reports seem to be heavily tilted towards the Katipunan area where the defending champions, Ateneo Blue Eagles, and Season 84 titlists, University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons are located.
Ateneo’s recruitment machine has been the gold standard among UAAP schools. Over the past couple of years, they were able to build a championship team under the able leadership of Coach Tab Baldwin to bring in elite players like Kai Balunggay (from Cal State), Paul Garcia from Salisbury University), Matthew Daves (Central Tech Prep), Patrick Maagdenberg (New Zealand), Kyle Gamber (Polytech HS, Delaware), Chris Koon (Cal-State), plus a host of local standouts like William Navarro (San Beda), Dave Ildefonso (who came from NU after studying at Ateneo High), and Sean Quitevis (Springdale Titans in Cebu), among many others. Not to mention FSA Ange Kouame from Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), arguably acclaimed as the greatest UAAP player in history.
UP, though, won’t be left behind. Inspired by their runner-up finish in Season 81, the Maroons, with former coach and now Program Director Bo Perasol taking the lead, have brought in a bevy of talents also at Diliman. Bright Akhuetie, who came from Perpetual Help, became the league MVP in 2018 and anchored the Maroons’ surge. Major recruits also include Zav Lucero (Cal-Maritime), Henry Galinato (Benedictine University Mesa), James Spencer (Lamar University), plus local recruits Ricci Rivero and JD Cagulangan (DLSU), CJ Cansino (UST), the NU High boys (Carl Tamayo, Harold Alarcon, Cyril Gonzales, Terrence Fortea, Gerry Abadiano, plus incoming players Reyland Torres, Janjan Felicilda), Kobe Paras (La Salle High, Creighton), Will Gozum (Mapua High), and Season 85 MVP Malik Diouf (from Senegal who came via the CEU Scorpions).
Even before Ateneo regained the crown against the Maroons last December, reports had come out that they will be bringing in the likes of Andrew Bongo, Jared Brown and Mason Amos. Amos is regarded as the biggest acquisition for the season and is expected to make a major impact from the get-go. Joseph Obasa, a 6’10 Nigerian, will also replace Kouame as the team’s FSA.
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UP, on the other hand, will most likely field Torres and Felicilda. The Maroons has also inked Chicco Briones, the 6’6 son of former PBA player, Lowell. There are reports as well that La Salle Greenhills standouts Seven Gagate and Josh Coronel could also take their talents to Diliman, although no formal announcement has been made yet.
But the biggest news that came out on Saturday night was the commitment of Francis Lopez to play for UP. Initially penciled to suit up for the Blue Eagles, Lopez’s announcement, held on the night when Ateneo celebrated their Season 85 championship with a bonfire on campus, razed across several online platforms. Lopez, who has played for the Gilas men’s basketball team, is a 6’6 wingman with an amazing vertical leap. His experience playing alongside PBA players at Gilas will make him an immediate force to reckon with and UP’s likely replacement for the multi-talented Lucero. There could be a speed bump, though, as Lopez had previously signed a contract with the US-based Overtime Elite. How the league tackles this will be worth watching.
Good or bad?
With the strengthening of their respective lineups, Ateneo and UP will remain as the favorites to win the UAAP championship at least in the next 2 to 3 years. The question that lingers though is – will this be good or bad for the league?
This could work both ways. The UAAP is very different from the PBA, the latter being an entertainment and marketing platform that needs advertisers and fans to exist. The UAAP is a tournament among eight different schools intended to attract more students as well as carry bragging rights as having the top basketball team in the league.
Ateneo and UP becoming staples in the UAAP Finals and creating a duopoly may be comparable to how the PBA was back in their pioneer years when Crispa and Toyota ruled over the field. The PBA couldn’t afford to have just two teams at the top of the roost, which was why the league gave the other teams the opportunity to become competitive by allowing them to field two imports at the same time while the two powerhouse teams were limited to one.
The UAAP doesn’t need this parity, though. While the ideal scenario is to see all eight teams capable of beating each other, the league won’t fold up because only one or two teams are dominant. UE won seven straight championships in the 60’s, while FEU, UST, DLSU and Ateneo had their own multiple-title runs from the 70’s to the present, but the league has become stronger than ever.
It also helps that the communities of both schools have been actively supporting their teams. UP’s uprising alone has increased the attendance at the venue brought about by the alumni regularly watching the games. At the same time, several casual fans have also taken interest even if they have no particular association with any school. The high quality of games, made possible by the outstanding coaching of the UAAP mentors, has also contributed to the league’s continued success.
In the end, other schools will just have to keep up. The Maroons themselves struggled for several years as the league’s doormats until Perasol and company took over. While seeing Ateneo and UP creating a larger wedge between them and the rest of the teams that will cause non-parity, it also poses a challenge for the others to build their own teams uniquely different from the two Katipunan schools.