My good friend Nash Racela, head coach of defending Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) champions Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, remains optimistic about his team’s chances this year even without six of his key players from the 2015 roster. Gone are the Tams’ main men – Mike Tolomia, Mac Belo, Russell Escoto, Roger Pogoy, Achie Inigo and Francis Tamsi – who were mostly credited for last year’s successful campaign that gave the Morayta-based institution its 20th UAAP men’s basketball crown.
Over cups of coffee, Nash and I would regularly talk hoops for about two hours. I strongly rooted for him last year because I wanted him to get his first collegiate championship. More than a decade ago, we were together at the San Beda Red Lions squad that was on a 27-year NCAA drought. On his first year as San Beda coach in 2004, the Lions managed to make the Final Four for the first time since the format was introduced in the NCAA six years earlier. Finishing at No. 4, we had to beat No. 1 team Perpetual Help U twice to make it to the finals. But we missed what would’ve been a game-tying lay up to force overtime in Game 2 of the semis match-up against the Altas, after mauling them in Game 1. The following year, we lost five of our main guys to graduation and had to contend with a rookie-laden unit, led by high school star Ogie Menor and a young Bam Gamalinda. But after the first round, we only had one win to show, forcing the school and team management to make the harsh decision of letting Nash go, along with me and the rest of the staff. It was a bitter experience for any young coach. But it was also one that made us better.
This 79th UAAP Season, Nash is faced with the same situation twelve years ago when most of his best players moved on from college ball. There’s a striking resemblance between theTamaraws now and the 2005 Red Lions–a group of greenhorns raring to make a mark in the big league. But Nash has grown so much better as a coach and mentor to young college ballers over the years, dating from the 2005 NCAA debacle. Having played in the UAAP Finals in the last two seasons, and of course winning last year’s title, certainly boosted his confidence in facing yet another challenging campaign.
But Nash and his boys entered the new season with an early collision with hands-down favourites La Salle Green Archers last week. With the high-scoring Jeron Teng playing his final season and the bull-strong Ben Mbala finally suiting up, La Salle is undeniably the team to beat this year. Many expected a blow-out win for the Archers. They did beat the Tams but by the skin of their teeth, 73-68. Yes the Archers at some point, led by as many as 16 points. But the defending champs slowly sliced the gap until they were able to tie the count in the payoff period. Teng’s clutch jumpers in endgame saved the day for La Salle. He finished with 28 markers, while Mbala hauled down 23 boards. But that game showed the rest of the UAAP that the Tams won’t be easy targets this year even with seven new faces in the roster.
Nash remains hopeful the Tams can still be a force to be reckoned with this year even with a young cast, many of whom are below 20 years old. He mentioned of noticeable improvements since the Tams’ stint in the pre-season tournament Fil-Oil Cup. “We’re playing much better now than during the summer. I think we are improving by the day and it gives us hope.”
He says making the Final 4 is doable. No doubt.
Still, even with the barefaced might of La Salle, the 79th UAAP could still be anybody’s ballgame. National University is just as formidable with the hulking Alfred Aroga still around. And don’t count out Ateneo, University of the East and Adamson just yet.
And to Nash, I hope to make a toast to his first season win soon. With coffee, of course.