Last year’s Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Benoit Mbala of defending champion La Salle is currently making waves in the on-going FIBA AfroBasket in Tunisia. Big Ben is Cameroon’s best scorer after two games, averaging 19.5 points on an impressive 54.2% shooting clip. He is also currently the seventh best scorer in the tournament, which is participated by the strongest basketball nations in Africa.
In a losing effort versus host Tunisia, the 6’6” star Green Archer finished with a team-high 15 points, including two triples, and six rebounds. But in the team’s second assignment, Mbala led the Cameroonians once more, this time to a lopsided 96-54 triumph over Guinea as he gathered 24 markers, six boards and four steals. This is without a doubt an exceptional performance for a first timer in the FIBA Africa championship. Unlike in the UAAP where he is the most imposing player in the league, Ben is battling much bigger and stronger cagers in Tunisia, some of whom are National Basketball Association (NBA) and Euro League campaigners. Mbala is carrying the fight for Cameroon in this tournament in the absence of NBA players Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, and Luc Mbaha a Moute.
Can you imagine what Ben could bring back to the UAAP upon his return from Africa? Surely a scary thought. The 6’6” beast is expected to dominate Season 80 and make the Green Archers the heavy favorites again in the tournament. There’s hardly anyone that can match up with Mbala one-on-one this year. Of course, La Salle also has a deep bench that’s crowded with former high school superstars and reliable second stringers. Aljun Melecio, Ricci Rivero, Andrei Caracut and Kib Montalbo are all ace gunners that complement Ben’s supremacy in the paint. Add to the mix other inside operators like Abu Tratter, Justine Baltazar, Leonard Santillan and Prince Rivero.
But I don’t expect the Archers to have a walk in the park this year. Last year’s campaign was easier because of Jeron Teng’s scoring prowess. This season, two or more Archers will have to fill in that huge void left by Teng. But for as long as Mbala brings his A-game, La Salle will be a tough nut to crack.
This new UAAP season however promises to be a lot more competitive than last year. I think it will be a tight race to the Final Four among La Salle, Ateneo, Far Eastern University (FEU), Adamson, National University (NU) and the University of the Philippines (UP). But I also believe the Blue Eagles will be the biggest threat to La Salle’s title retention bid.
Last year’s runner-up Ateneo almost pulled one over its archrival in Game 1 of the Season 79 finals but missed the potential game winning shot in endgame. Now with an almost intact roster, plus some promising rookies, the Blue Eagles look ready for another crack at the title. Under former National coach Tab Baldwin, the Blue Eagles are a defensive machine that can put on the clamps on any team, including the Mbala-powered Green Archers. There is no legit go-to-guy in this team but several Blue Eagles are capable of scoring in twin digits. One of their top guns last year – Adrian Wong – will have to sit out this year because of an injury. But Thirdy Ravena, Mike and Matt Nieto, Jolo Mendoza, Anton Asistio, Aaron Black, Isaac Go and Chibueze Ikeh are back to don the Blue and White, but this time no longer as overwhelming underdogs. Ateneo will also parade a deeper roster this team as Tyler Tio, the former Xavier School star, finally gets clearance to suit up, along with 2016 NCAA Juniors MVP Troy Mallillin, and former Eaglets Bryan Andrade and Gian Mamuyac. Baldwin’s starless system makes the Blue Eagles unpredictable and dangerous. It was evident in Ateneo’s emphatic 85-65 conquest of Adamson on opening day.
Speaking of Adamson, we haven’t seen the best of the Falcons yet as top center Pappi Sarr remains unable to see action pending an injury. FEU, UP and NU are the dark horses in Season 80.