(Mall of Asia Arena)
1 p.m. — FEU vs UST
4 p.m. — Ateneo vs UP
Defending champion Ateneo de Manila University and unbeaten University of the Philippines mix it up in the much-anticipated rematch of last year’s finals to end the first round of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Season 86 men’s basketball tournament today at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Expect nothing but fireworks and exciting action when the protagonists of the championships of the last two seasons clash at 4 p.m. following the 1 p.m. meeting between Far Eastern University and winless University of Santo Tomas.
But unlike in the previous season where both teams were on equal footing, the still pristine Fighting Maroons have the obvious edge in firepower with most of their veteran core intact compared to the Blue Eagles who lost their key championship pieces.
Ateneo has been blowing hot and cold in its first six games and has yet to string consecutive wins. The Blue Eagles sport a 3-3 win-loss record.
For Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin, the game presents an opportunity for his rebuilding squad to show its character.
He downplays the hyped-up rivalry angle.
“It’s definitely not a rematch. The names of the teams might be the same but we’re far cry from the same team that went out to play them. We have a lot to prove, you know? And every game is an opportunity for us to prove things,” Baldwin said of his team that lost players like Ange Kouame, BJ Andrade, Forthsky Padrigao and Dave Ildefonso who were instrumental in the Blue Eagles championship run last year.
“It’s a great scenario to go up against the unbeaten team, you know, it’s a great opportunity to go up against a team (like that).”
Despite Ateneo’s early struggles, Baldwin would like to think that his team’s 97-77 dominating win over the Tigers gave the Fighting Maroons something to think about.
“We all really love being underdogs and we hate being the favorites. So, you know, (UP coach) Goldwin (Monteverde) can sweat a little bit this week which we want him to, but you know, come game time on Sunday, he’s gonna be very confident in his team,” Baldwin said.
“He’s gonna be very confident in their performance, their strength but he’s gonna worry, during the week, I think our performance gave him a few different things to think about.”
Chris Koon, Kai Ballungay, Joseph Obasa and Mason Amos will be leading Ateneo’s charge in an all-important match that could change its fortune heading into the crucial stretch of the race for a Final Four seat.
UP, on the other hand, just wants to continue its winning run, look at things to improve on, and not get too emotional over the Ateneo game.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought much about Ateneo. But as all teams, every time we’re playing against them, we prepare for them,” Monteverde said.
The Fighting Maroons had a close call last Wednesday when they turned back upset-minded De La Salle University, 67-64.
Monteverde treated it as a good test of character for his squad as UP primed up for a shot at completing a first-round sweep.
“We as a team, really take good and bad games as a learning lesson for us. We try to look at every game, every practice, the things that we could improve on,” Monteverde said.
Reigning Most Valuable Player Malick Diouf, who has a double-double average of 13.3 points and 15.13 rebounds, CJ Cansino, Harold Alarcon, Francis Lopez and JD Cagulangan are all playing great basketball this season and are showing no signs of slowing down.
With a deeper, more experienced bench compared to Ateneo, UP marches into battle as the obvious favorites over the reigning champions.
But statistics won’t be much of a factor when school pride is at stake.
Meanwhile, UST’s pride is on the line once again as it seeks to end an embarrassing six-game losing skid. The Tigers are currently at their worst slump in the league, losing 19 games overall since last season.
FEU, on the other hand, shoots to end the opening round with a third straight win after starting the season with four consecutive losses.