The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will be 92 years old on Saturday, June 25 at the Mall of Asia Arena. It must be the longest running collegiate league in Asia. The U.S. NCAA is about 18 years older (formed in1906 under the original name Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS)). It’s mind-blowing indeed that our NCAA remains rock solid for almost a century.
What’s even more appealing is that this 2016 season promises to be wide open, at least in the men’s basketball division. I think for the first time in the last ten years, the 19-time champions San Beda Red Lions are not considered heavy favorites in the coming tournament. Even more interesting is that many observers agree that at least six schools can be considered contenders in Season 92. This is surely something to look forward to when the season opens Saturday with a whopping double header starting with the rematch of last year’s finalists – defending champion Letran and host San Beda – followed by the battle of fellow favorites Jose Rizal University (JRU) and Mapua Institute of Technology (MIT).
In my opinion, the top two teams should be the Arellano Chiefs and JRU Heavy Bombers. Third-year coach Jerry Codinera has done a stellar job in whipping the Chiefs into a battle-ready squad as evidenced by their strong first runner-up showing in the recent Fil Oil Cup. Jio Jalalon, considered as the top amateur point guard in the country today, and fellow Cagayan de Oro native Ken Salado make a dynamic duo that carries the Legarda-based team to several huge wins in the pre-season, including a massive 86-79 conquest of San Beda in the Fil Oil quarterfinals. The Chiefs are dangerous in transition because of their quickness and ability to connect from long-distance. American power forwardDioncee Holts is deadlier than ever with his long-range sniping, and so is shooting forward Zach Nicholls. Rookie Lervin Flores adds muscle to the Chiefs’ frontline with his rebounding ability and noteworthy inside offense. This could be Arellano’s best chance of bagging a first-ever NCAA basketball plum.
But not if JRU lives up to expectations. The Bombers skipped the Fil Oil Cup but reports say they look formidable. Returning for coach Vergel Meneses is his one-two punch of Paolo Pontejos and Tey Teodoro, who are both volume scorers. Fact is, the Mandaluyong brigade is almost intact from last year’s roster that made the Final 4. African recruits Abdouladif Poutouochie and Abdulrazak Abdul-Wahab form a robust rotation at the center post. Like Arellano, this season could also be JRU’s best bet of ending a 43-year dry spell.
Let’s not forget MIT, which will be returning with last year’s Rookie-MVP Allwell Oraeme. The Cardinals are dangerous with the 6’9” Oraeme and a platoon of long-distance gunners like Exe Biteng, Darrel Menina, Carlos Isit and JP Nieles, along with stretch forwards Justin Serrano, Mark Brana and Buen Dela Rosa.
The Letran Knights still have a sturdy starting unit despite losing last year’s sensational super seniors Mark Cruz and Kevin Racal. Rey Nambatac is now the main man of first-year Letran mentor Jeff Napa. But Jerrick Balanza, Bong Quinto, John Calvo, Jomari Sollano, Felix Apreku and McJour Luib make the Knights a tough assignment for any team this year.
As for the former five-peat titlist San Beda, losing six key players, including the terrific trio of Baser Amer, Ola Adeogun and Arth Dela Cruz, surely cast doubt on its ability to rebuild another dynasty. The Red Lions enter Season 92 with eight rookies, or more than half of their roster being first-timers. The baton has been passed on to graduating skipper Dan Sara, and third-year campaigners Javee Mocon and Radge Tongco. But coach Jamike Jarin’s crew still has the deepest bench, with sophomore standouts like Donald Tankoua, AC Soberano and Joe Presbitero showing vast improvement. Among the greenhorns, former La Salle guard Robert Bolick and Fil-Am Davon Potts are to watch out for.
The Perpetual Help Altas are the dark horse this year, mainly because of the dreaded Nigerian tandem of Bright Akhuetie and Prince Eze, plus steady gunners Gab Dagangon and GJ Ylagan.
Get ready for an explosive Season 92.