Para sa mga di pa naka-move-on, para sa mga palaging tinatanong ng kaibigan at kamag-anak “Anyare sa Ateneo?” At para na rin sa tinatawag na closure.
For my part, I knew this year would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.
So here are 5 probable reasons, plus some bright spots to remember during the offseason.
(Pahabol: pics aren’t mine. 🙂 )
1. The Coach
I think I incessantly blogged about it last year, and well, it looks like it was worth being incessant about.
So here I go again: In college hoops, more than anywhere, the Coach embodies the program. Keyword: Program. A program assumes that your team, your finances, your scouting, and your strategies are built for a run that lasts. Take a look at Duke, North Carolina, Florida U, and all the successful college teams in the states. They’re not always champions, sure, but they always contend in the NCAA March Madness. They always have very excellent teams. And in all these cases, the program is an imprint of the coach and vice versa.
Now think about the Ateneo Program, run for almost a decade by one of the best coaches in the country. The 3-4 month UAAP college hoops contest is only the proverbial tip of the basketball iceberg. That’s showtime. But behind the scenes, year-round, are practices, scouting guys like Baclao from the Visayas, teaching big men like Ford Arao and Doug Kramer not to suck so much. And preparing to do it all again next year. Together with the school’s athletics department, he ran a program. Not just coached a team.
And in one flip of the page, he disappeared.
Coach Bo Perasol is probably an able coach, and I’m sure he loves the players, but he is just that – at least as of now – : an able coach who loves his players. He is nowhere near the Pinoy Basketball Hall of Famer Norman Black is, teaching doesn’t seem to be one of his strong suits.
I was reminded that Bo Perasol actually faced a very tough crowd with absurd expectations. He also wasn’t able to bring in his own coaching staff like a coach usually has the prerogative to do so. He also didn’t have all the players he was supposed to play with.
Which brings us to the next point:
2. Kiefer Ravena
I remember a Facebook status I posted after Ateneo lost its first three games:
“Now I know what it feels like to be a Lakers fan.”
Of course, my Atenean friends who were also Lakers fans were the ones who understood, too.
Imagine losing Phil Jackson at the start of the season. Then Kobe getting injured as the playoffs started. I think the losses were proportional: Losing a hall-of-famer coach then injuring your star player during a critical time of the season.
You can argue, of course, that Kiefer Ravena was able to come back midway through the season. Then you can go on to say that Ateneo still had that chance because he was there. True, but I think what we weren’t able to see were the intangibles off the court:
Kiefer wasn’t able to jell with his teammates right before the season started. He was never able to get his groove back. By the time he was inserted back into the starting lineup, the pressure and stakes had become too high that there was no more time nor room to find whatever rhythm you used to have. He was uncharacteristically sputtering: throwing away possessions, and even missing crucial free throws.
Which then brings us to the next point (see? it’s a web!)
3. As a team, they never really jelled.
Remember, the team was supposed to have Pinggoy. Together, he and Ravena and Buenafe were supposed to be an unstoppable machine. Then Ravena also fell to injury. Buenafe and Newsome found ways to win early in the season.. Then Ravena came back and the whole team had to find a way to work together again.
Many times, in fact during their worst offensive stretches, they looked like they were just practicing. Soft passes. Soft picks. Running through the motions. Even during the critical stretches. Result: more turnovers that we could care to count.
During their best moments, the defense was amazing. As soon as the bad shot was rebounded, or as soon as the steal was made, the offense was off and running. Which was what you wanted to see a team built to run do a lot more. There was no imposing inside presence, so you couldn’t run post-anchored offensive sets. And when the team WAS off and running, they were very difficult to stop.
Not to say that they were also completely in sync on defense, too. Against UE in the first round and against NU in the 2nd, there were defensive plays down the stretch that could have definitely changed the outcome of the game. Instead, there were wide open shots for the opponent.
Which leads us to…
4. A lack of ABLE big men
Remember Greg Slaughter? Nonoy Baclao? Then there was a time when Norman Black transformed Ford Arao and Doug Kramer into good big men.
But this year, Erram and Golla did their best to fill in the gaps. However, they were often seen gasping for air, in foul trouble, or letting the big men of the opposing teams have their way. Of course it didn’t help that the other teams were using imports to boost their front line.
I’m not saying you need a hulking presence in the middle to win a championship. I think FEU got its winning streak going by sticking to what it did best – high-powered guard and SF action + a lot of sweet shooting. But it had able big men to anchor the defense and at least hold the fort.
Our big men, again, did their best. They huffed. They puffed. But our house kept falling down.
5. The other teams just got really better this year.
Aside from UP, everyone was just raring to go.
There were the imported big men from all over. There were the teams that were waiting for half a decade to finally show that they too had the stuff to win titles. La Salle had been all fired up, waiting for the right time. I would be, too, if my arch rivals lorded it over me for 5 straight years. NU was also raring to show that it had vastly improved. FEU was also out to win it all. UST, UE, and Adamson were not pushovers, either.
So as teams became better, Ateneo’s level of excellence dropped. Wrong time to do so, I know, but that’s how it goes.
Good points for next year:
1. You can be sure the team would have already jelled. Losing together, being crushed together, and then coming to camp with a full roster, are bound to make sure the Blue Eagles’ Machine won’t be conking out rust when it’s needed to work again.
2. The sting of this year’s defeat will definitely make them come out with bigger hearts next year. I don’t think a guy like Kiefer Raven will take losing lightly.
3. Coaching Improvements
I’m NOT saying that there needs to be a coaching change. For all you know, Coach Bo Perasol will find his way next year, straight into the Final Four, and out of trouble. In any case, if Coach Sandy Arespacochaga forgives us for the abuse he suffered from the community some years back when he first tried serving as head coach, maybe he can also coach us. I honestly don’t know if he’ll do a better job than Coach Bo, but during that year he was head coach, he was 7-0 in the first round, and we made it into the Final Four. This year, Coach Sandy has grown immensely – he is not just assistant in the Ateneo squad, he’s also Coach Norman’s assistant in the Talk N’ Text pro squad. During the game against UST, he coached magnificently: he found a way to get the team back into the game despite being down by double digits, he found words to get the big men going against Abdul, he risked calling his last timeout with a lot more time left but it produced good results. All I’m saying is the guy’s ready. Again.
4. It’s just a bad year in the program. Again, Ateneo can look ahead because its basketball team is only part of a program. Recruitment, training, etc. go on and on and on because the program is in place.