While the local basketball community is starting to rave about a potential Ateneo-La Salle finale in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines’ (UAAP) Season 79 men’s basketball tournament, the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws and Adamson University Falcons are preparing for a grueling semis battle that starts on Wednesday. The No. 4 Falcons face No. 1 De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers on Wednesday, while No. 3 Tams clash with No. 2 Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Blue Eagles on Saturday, both at the Mall of Asia Arena. The Archers and Eagles enjoy the twice-to-beat advantage.
In the last two UAAP seasons, neither Ateneo nor La Salle made it to the finals. In 2014, National University won just its second UAAP cage crown over FEU. The next year, FEU bounced back and got its league-best 20th title by subduing University of Santo Tomas. Prior to the last two years, La Salle and Ateneo often figured in the UAAP championship. In fact, from 2007 to 2013, the Eagles and Archers were kings of the league, with La Salle owning the 2007 and 2013 championships, and Ateneo reigning from 2008 to 2012 for an amazing five-peat.
This year, La Salle and Ateneo secured the top two positions after the elimination phase, and are eyeing a return to the finals. The heavily favored Archers almost swept the competition before archrival Ateneo in their second round encounter derailed them. The Eagles are currently on a hot six-game winning streak.
But FEU and Adamson are not to be taken lightly. The defending champions Tamaraws were running second to DLSU for most of the season before they suffered a four-game losing stretch. Their two games versus La Salle were close contests, with the Archers snatching the victory just in endgame. Despite losing six of their main men from last year’s successful campaign, the Tams remain a dangerous match-up for anyone.
Adamson has certainly been the biggest surprise of Season 79, entering the Final Four after finishing last in 2015. Now under multi-titled hoops guru Franz Pumaren, the Falcons play with nothing to lose but everything to gain. They too are a dangerous foe in the playoffs, even for La Salle.
La Salle versus Adamson. The Archers only tasted a solitary defeat the entire season but pretty much dominated the league. They’re the No. 1 scoring and rebounding team with 88.1 points and 52.3 rebounds per game. They thrive on an up-tempo play that usually starts with a relentless pressing and trapping defense. And they have a lethal weapon in rookie super import Ben Mbala, the hands down season MVP, who tallied 20.6 markers, 16 boards and 2.4 blocks per game. But the Falcons are approaching the playoffs with excitement and without much pressure, being the heavy underdogs. They are second-best in offense (72.2 PPG) but rule the league in three-point field goals (33.1%). The keys for Adamson are: beat the DLSU trapping defense, stop the Archers’ transition game, block out Mbala and Abu Tratter, and connect well from the outside. Doing all these is surely easier said than done. But the Falcons have overachieved already this year and are not about to stop now.
Ateneo versus FEU. Peaking at the right time, Ateneo has risen to the occasion in the second round after a sluggish start. Under former Gilas coach Tab Baldwin, the Eagles have blown away the cobwebs and started to play beautiful music together in their last six games. But even with two wins over FEU already this season, the Eagles need to have a good offensive game to topple the Tams. I foresee a very even match up, with both schools not really having a legit go-to-guy but with several potential spark plugs and go-getters. Expect a defensive joust between two of the best defensive units in the league (No. 1 FEU, allowing just 65.1 PPG, followed by ADMU’s 66.4). It will also be a dribble-drive contest in offense. The Tams, with Raymar Jose and Prince Orizu, will have the rebounding edge. The team that shoots better from the outside will likely emerge victorious.
Expect a rip-roaring semis affair this week but don’t count out FEU and Adamson just yet.