They sure are living up to the hype. The Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) Pirates silenced all doubters on Friday after their shocking upset of defending champions San Beda Red Lions, 96-91, in what many considered a potential preview of the 93rd National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Season men’s basketball finals.
Before the much-awaited showdown with the Red Lions, the Pirates also clobbered another season favorite in the Jose Rizal University (JRU) Heavy Bombers last week by a whopping 21-points, 96-75. Most NCAA analysts think that the top contenders this season are San Beda, LPU, JRU and San Sebastian, mostly due to the results of the Fil Oil Flying V Premiere Cup pre-season tournament, where all these schools made the playoffs. Well, LPU already defeated San Beda and JRU. The Pirates actually made it to the semis of the Fil Oil, and almost punched a ticket to the finals if not for some end-game blunders that cost them the game against defending Universities Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) titlist De La Salle.
LPU entered the NCAA only in 2011 and has yet to barge into the Final Four of the men’s basketball event. It’s best record came in 2013 when the Pirates posted an 8-10 win-loss card. But now, the Intramuros-based squad is enjoying its best start in the country’s oldest cage league and has gotten past two of its toughest opponents already in the first round. Quite noticeable is the aggressive play of the Pirates this year, using an up-tempo attack that just squeezes the life out of their foes.
Most of the credit must go to second-year head coach Michael Christopher “Topex” Robinson, a former pro and collegiate standout from San Sebastian College (SSC). Since moving from the Stags’ den to the Pirates’ ship, the young mentor has buckled down to work to whip the team into a highly disciplined and energetic unit. He made a major revamp in the roster since Season 92, letting go of former LPU top dogs like Joseph Gabayni, Jebb Bulawan, Shaq Alanes and Adrian Alban. Then, aware of the Pirates’ lack of ceiling, he embraced the “40-minutes of hell” type of defense that puts the pressure even from the backcourt for the entire game, looking to force turnovers with multiple trapping schemes, and scoring off those miscues. He also adopted the Dribble Drive Motion (DDM) offense that thrives on constant attacks to the basket. The DDM system fits his team well, which has a lot of topnotch slashers and excellent outside bombers. Heading that cast, of course, is former SSC and Ateneo gunner CJ Perez, who dropped 24 markers on the Red Lions last Friday. But CJ has other capable teammates that are highly skilled in the game, both in inside penetrations and outside sniping. Reymar Caduyac was the main hero against San Beda, repeatedly outplaying and outsmarting the defense to finish with 16 points, on top of seven assists. Also impressive in that game was Jaycee Marcelino, a speedy guard who scattered 14 points that included two triples, and six rebounds. His twin brother Jayvee also chipped in seven markers. But their best shooter is 6’4” forward Wilson Baltazar, who was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc versus the Lions. LPU’s pillar of strength is 6’6” Cameroonian sensation Mike Harry Nzeusseu, who is a workhorse under the basket and also multi skilled in the game. Harry posted a double-double of 18 points and 13 boards against the taller Lions, and also accounted for three blocks.The other reliable Pirates are Jesper Ayaay, Ralph Tansingco, Jeff Santos, and Nino Ibanez.
The Pirates outrebounded the Red Lions, 43-41, and forced them into 18 turnovers. They also shot a respectable 45.21% from the field. Surprisingly, despite scoring 96 points against a tough defensive unit in San Beda, LPU only registered 12 assists. This means the Pirates scored heavily on one-on-one penetrations, as provided by the DDM. They only had a total 14 transition (fastbreak and turnover points) points.
Could this be the year the Pirates take over the NCAA? It’s still a long way to go but they sure are starting to put fear in the hearts of the rest of the field.