Ateneo’s basketball program continues to be one of the most formidable in the country, never failing to cultivate a steady stream of talent every season which has resulted in a dominant string of championships in the UAAP.
There won’t be anything different in terms of team strength when the Blue Eagles defend the crown next year despite witnessing the exodus of three main cogs that helped deliver another title in the year that just passed.
Finals MVP Ange Kouame, wingman Dave Ildefonso and marksman BJ Andrade have all exited Ateneo’s evolving player factory, but the void they’ve left will be amply filled with the glut of talent that remains out there for the Eagles to pick from.
“We have a lot of recruits coming in next year. In our program, we don’t play around with the truth and the truth is, if you want to be a Blue Eagle next year, you have to fight for your spot,’’ said Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin just after the din of celebration for the Season 85 championship was about to die down.
According to Ateneo team manager Epok Quimpo, it’s a cutthroat competition among the players in the Blue Eagles’ 28-man pool to land these spots with three to four recruits ready to occupy the voids that opened up.
Filipino-Americans Andrew Bongo, Jared Brown and Fil-Aussie Mason Amos could be suiting up as rookies in Season 86, and the addition of Nigerian 6-foot-10 center Joseph Obasa as Ateneo’s foreign student-athlete could be a worthy replacement for the naturalized Kouame.
“His [Obasa] built is almost the same as Ange. But while Ange has an all-around skillset, Joseph specifically plays his role as a big man,’’ said Quimpo.
“To be honest, it’s hard to predict once he goes out there, but I guess he can compete,’’ added Quimpo.
Obasa subbed for the 6-foot-11 Kouame during their championship run in the World University Basketball Series in Tokyo, Japan, as Kouame was resting an injured knee.
Bongo is a 6-foot-4 wingman who played in Los Angeles, California, while Brown is a seasoned point guard from a California NCAA division 2 school and he’s expected to share the minutes with starting court general and Mythical Team member, Forthsky Padrigao, and off-the-bench playmaker Vince Gomez.
But the biggest catch of them all could be the 6-foot-7 Amos, who led the Gilas Pilipinas youth squad during the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) Under-18 Asian Championships in Tehran, Iran four months ago.
Gifted with a multi-dimensional offensive armory, the 18-year-old Amos can shoot from the outside with ease, smoothly drive to the lane and barrel his way in the paint.
Amos is hands-down the most promising from among the current crop of Batang Gilas, having served notice of his might in the continent after averaging a pace-setting 24.3 points per game on top of 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals during the Fiba tournament.
Obasa, who already hooked up with the Blue Eagles even before the pandemic struck three years ago, will be eligible to suit up for the blue-and-white for at least two more seasons while Amos, a fresh pick out of high school, has a long collegiate stint ahead of him.
These guys should help hold the fort for Ateneo’s title defense next season along with Kai Ballungay, Chris Koon, Joshua Lazaro, Matt Daves, Anton Quitevis, Geo Chiu, Padrigao, Gomez and shooter Paul Garcia.
“The future is always uncertain. But I know these guys and they’re fighters,’’ said Baldwin, who will spend the new year in the United States and return to the country before training resumes Jan. 11.
Kouame, the Season 84 MVP who won three championships with Ateneo, is set to go under the knife to correct his knee problems, but not after suiting up for a Philippine side that will play in the Dubai Invitational late this month.
Ildefonso, son of two-time Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) MVP and basketball legend Danny Ildefonso, is bringing his talent overseas and sources said he would be suiting up with Suwon KT Sonicboom in the Korean Basketball League.
“They’ll all play professionally. I think that they might see diverse paths for them. Ange, of course, can’t play in the PBA, but he’s going to be good enough to play as an import. We’ll have to try and figure out how to help him with his future,’’ said Baldwin.
“Maybe [he could play] in Europe, maybe in Japan where I think he’s good enough to play an import role over there. He still has work to do in his offensive game, but he’s gonna be a pro for another 10 to 12 years,’’ added Baldwin.
Andrade, who magnificently signed off from his collegiate stint after knocking down the all-important free throws in their Game 3 victory, can be a prized find for coaches in the big leagues.
“If you want a winner in your team, you want a guy who could defend, shoot the ball, whatever you say or run brick walls for you and love his teammates, get BJ Andrade,’’ said Baldwin.
Ateneo now owns 12 UAAP titles in men’s basketball after winning 10 of their 15 finals appearances in a span of 21 seasons. Baldwin has steered the Blue Eagles in capturing their last four championships inside the last six seasons.
Ateneo’s recent conquest was a championship triumph over the UP Fighting Maroons in another classic Game 3, no-tomorrow titular showdown.
The daily practices of the Blue Eagles are normally held late in the afternoon for four hours, including weight training or a viewing session.
But since there’s no tournament looming on the horizon, weights training will be extensive in lieu of a regular viewing in a classroom-type setup.
“We’d like to join all local tournaments and if possible, we hope to play again in the Jones Cup,’’ said Quimpo.
The Blue Eagles saw action in the 2018 William Jones Cup in Taipei, subbing for Gilas when it was preparing for another Fiba-sanctioned tournament.
Part of Ateneo’s buildup for Season 86 is the Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup in June or July before defending the World University Basketball Series title in early August prior to the Fiba World Cup 2023 that the Philippines will be cohosting with Japan and Indonesia.
“We normally hold a training camp outside of the country. We went to Israel this year, but we have yet to decide where to go next year. We’ve been planning, but nothing is concrete yet,’’ said Quimpo.
Preparations for the UAAP will go full blast after the Fiba World Cup and the Blue Eagles are fully aware that everybody will be after that shiny crown on their heads.
And like what they have done in the previous season, they are making sure that they are up to the challenge. INQ
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