Letran opens its back-to-back championship bid minus its old coach and two of its leaders as it clashes with an equally new-look San Beda even as title contenders Mapua and Jose Rizal clash in today’s start of the 92nd NCAA basketball tournament at The MOA Arena in Pasay City.
The Knights will be without Aldin Ayo, who was replaced by Jeff Napa after he left to coach La Salle early this year, and the veteran pair of Kevin Racal and Mark Cruz, who are now in the pros, when they battle the Lions, who lost starters Ola Adeogun, Baser Amer, Arthur dela Cruz and Ryusei Koga, at 2 p.m.
The Cardinals and the Bombers, who finished third and fourth a season back, for their part, tangle at 6 p.m.
The season will be ushered in by a colorful opening number directed by Douglas Nierras using the season theme “Sports Builds Character; Achieving Breakthrough @ Season 92” and the parade of all 10 participating schools starting at 12:30 p.m.
The league will also honor the late great Carlos “Caloy” Loyzaga, whose number 14 he used when he played for San Beda in the 50s will be retired for making the country proud in world competitions.
And then it’s going to be war.
“The good thing about this team is that we have no superstars,” said Napa, who won three UAAP high school titles with National U before accepting the Letran job.
“It’s probably good for us also that they’re not considering us a title threat, it challenges us more,” he added.
San Beda mentor Jamike Jarin also belied notion that they will be one of the favorites to win the crown.
“I’m really surprised that we’re considered title favorites when we lost practically all our starters and our Defensive Player of the Year in Ola [Adeogun],” said Jarin, now on his second season.
“But we’re thankful of the early accolades we’re getting and we hope to really do better this season and live up to their expectations,” he added.
The Lions are eyeing nothing less than vengeance after they were denied a sixth-peat feat after losing the deciding Game Three of their title showdown last year to Ayo and the Knights.
“We just want another chance but we have to work really hard for it,” said Jarin.
The Bombers and the Cardinals have kept an almost intact line up and were tipped to challenge for the crown this season.
Jose Rizal retained its entire core headed by Tey Tey Teodoro, Abdoul Poutouochi, Cris Jordan dela Paz, John Pontejos and AbdulRazak AbdulWahab while Mapua made up for the departure of Josan Nimes and Andretti Stevens with the return of Andrew Estrella and Joseph Eriobu.
Reigning MVP Allwell Oraeme will also be back for the Cardinals alongside CJ Isit, Exeqiuel Biteng, Darrel Mennina, Justin Serrano and Denniel Aguirre.
“We’re happy with our development as a team,” said Mapua coach Atoy Co.