How time flies. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) of the Philippines celebrates its 93rd anniversary when it opens its basketball season on Saturday, July 8, at the Mall of Asia Arena. Imagine all those 93 years filled with great sports moments, and immortal sports heroes. The names are a lulu—Charles Borck, Arturo Rius, Moro Lorenzo, Lauro Mumar, Caloy Loyzaga, Francisco Rabat, Lim Eng Beng, Atoy Co, Philip Cezar, Samboy Lim, Alvin Patrimonio, Paul Alvarez, Rommel Adducul, Kerby Raymundo, Willie Miller, Jayson Castro, Sam Ekwe, Calvin Abueva, Scottie Thompson, Kevin Alas, Baser Amer, Jio Jalalon – to name a few.
This season, we can expect another competitive basketball tournament in both the men’s and juniors divisions, just like last year. I suppose most teams have improved from last season, except maybe for the Mapua Cardinals due to the departure of two-time MVP Allwell Oraeme, who reportedly left for his home country of Nigeria. There’s no word yet if the 2015-2016 MVPand 6’8” defensive monster is coming back, even as the Cards are ready for battle without their prized center.
Defending champions San Beda Red Lions, winners of nine of the last eleven seasons, are still considered the team to beat this year, especially after they ruled the recent Fil Oil Flying V Cup pre-season tournament with an untainted 11-0 romp. With only Dan Sara not returning this year, the Lions are parading an almost intact line-up from the 2016 championship squad. San Beda’s title defense campaign will rely heavily on fourth year forward Javee Mocon, and 2017 sensation Robert Bolick, who won the PBA D-League MVP award earlier this year before starring in the Lions’ Fil Oil title run. This could also be the Mendiola-based school’s tallest line-up ever with incoming 6’8” rookie Kemark Carino joining the towering front line of Ben Adamos, Donald Tankoua, JB Bahio, and Calvin Oftana, who are all above 6’4”. Also retuning to the Lions’ den is former coach Boyet Fernandez, who was the architect in the team’s 2013 and 2014 NCAA championships.
But the Lions won’t have a picnic this season with the emergence of new powerhouses. Most notable of all are the Lyceum of the Philippines University Pirates, who are fresh from a third place finish in the Fil Oil. Second year coach Topex Robinson has whipped the Pirates into a relentless and unforgiving full-court trapping squad that wreak havoc in the Fil Oil. Led by the ultra athletic CJ Perez, the Pirates almost upset defending UAAP champ La Salle in the Fil Oil semis. Meanwhile, Jose Rizal U is another team to watch out for after gaining the much-needed experience in the PBA D-League two months ago. Coach Vergel Meneses will be relying once more on prolific guard Tey Teodoro, the much-improved Ervin Grospe, and post specialist Abdouladif Poutouochi.
Last year’s runner-up Arellano Chiefs of Coach Jerry Codinera remain a dangerous unit with Kent Salado, Lervin Flores and Brylle Meca leading the charge. But 17-time champs Letran Knights could very well be this season’s dark horse with a solid core composed of the high-scoring Rey Nambatac, and the very talented Jerrick Balanza, Bong Quinto, JP Calvo and Jeo Ambohot. Host San Sebastian will be another tough team to engage with as ace forward Mike Calisaan enjoys a crack support crew made up of Jerick Fabian, Alfren Gayosa, Allyn Bulunadi, RK Ilagan, Alvin Capobres, Ryan Costelo and the returning Enzo Navarro.
Not to be taken lightly are the Emilio Aguinaldo Generals, who have shown vast improvements since 2016. Sidney Onwubere is expected to have a standout season this year. With a healthy 6’10” center Hamadou Laminou, the Generals will have a distinctive edge inside the paint. 2016 semi-finalists Perpetual Help Altas are likewise capable of giving the higher seeded teams a run for their money. They came closest to upending San Beda in the Fil Oil, bowing only in overtime. John Ylagan, Jeff Coronel, Gab Dagangon, Daryl Singontiko and 6’10” behemoth Prince Eze lead a young but hungry cast that’s eager to surprise many this year. Meanwhile, the St. Benilde Blazers, who managed to only win one game last year, enter with rejuvenated spirits under new coach TY Tang.
Let the games begin.