University of the Philippines starts trekking the long and bumpy road to a title repeat when it faces a familiar foe in De La Salle University as the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 85 men’s basketball tournament comes off the wraps on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Game time is set at 4 p.m. following the 2 p.m. curtain-raiser between host Adamson University and University of Santo Tomas.
The defending champions are off to a challenging start against a team eager to avenge its painful Final Four exit just a few months ago in Season 84.
Head coach Goldwin Monteverde, who steered the Fighting Maroons to their first title in 36 years at the expense of powerhouse Ateneo de Manila University, knows that the Green Archers are extra motivated and will march to battle with guns blazing.
“La Salle is a very good team. We’ll just take the challenge in front of us,” Monteverde said.
“All teams showed vast improvement during the preseason. I guess whether it’s La Salle or whomever we will face we know we have to be prepared.”
But UP will also come into war well-equipped.
Despite the departure of guard Ricci Rivero, who is now playing in the Taiwan pro league, and CJ Cansino sitting out the season because of a knee injury, the Fighting Maroons will virtually parade an intact championship core.
Leading the way for UP is Season 84 Rookie of the Year Carl Tamayo, who is one of the favorites to cop the Most Valuable Player award.
The Gilas Pilipinas member will have solid backing from Finals Game 3 hero JD Cagulangan, Finals Most Valuable Player Malick Diouf, forward Zavier Lucero and James Spencer with the addition of Filipino-American forward Henry Galinato Jr.
Green Archers head coach Derick Pumaren, on the other hand, is also confident of their chances of bringing down a new giant in UP.
“Coming in as defending champions, they have a different confidence level compared to coming into the bubble tournament,” Pumaren said.
“But I can guarantee that we will play hard, just work hard and compete to get a better chance of winning in the opening.”
La Salle itself is coming in hot after reigning supreme in the Philippine Basketball Association D-League Aspirants Cup.
The Green Archers may have lost big man Justine Baltazar and Kurt Lojera but the Taft-based squad made a recruitment coup by adding promising rookie Kevin Quiambao.
Veteran guard Evan Nelle will be back along with holdovers Michael Phillips, Schonny Winston and Mark Nonoy.
Meanwhile, prolific scorer Jerom Lastimosa will banner Adamson’s fight along with Cedrick Manzano, Lenda Douanga, Matty Erolon, Didat Hanapi, Joshua Yerro and Joem Sabandal.
The Soaring Falcons are also well-prepared coming into the season joining pre-season tournaments including a successful campaign in the Kadayawan Cup held in Davao.
“Experience-wise they have the advantage against us. We’ll just try our best to win on Saturday,” Tigers assistant coach Rodney Santos said.
Santos and newly-appointed head coach Bal David are bringing in a new system for the rebuilding Tigers, who have lost a slew of key players after last season.
Nic Cabanero will take the leadership role for the Tigers, who will also bank on Senegalese big man Adama Faye, Migs Pangilinan, Paul Manalang, Kenji Duremdes, Echo Laure and Richi Calimag.
“We’re coming in blind playing them this Saturday,” Racela said.
“We don’t know the kind of system coach Bal will bring in but we’ll be ready.”