UAAP: Ateneo Blue Eagles open title defense vs ‘tough’ NU Bulldogs

Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin.–MARLO CUETO/

Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin has never been one to downplay the chances of any of his opponents. He believes that every school in Season 86 of the UAAP men’s basketball tournament has a chance to win.

But he has special words for National University.

“That team plays tough and is very well-coached,” Baldwin had told the Inquirer in Japan during the World University Basketball Series where the Blue Eagles finished a fighting fourth. “They play hard every game and it will always be tough playing them.”

That was more than a month ago when Baldwin had no inkling that it would be the Bulldogs who will be his defending champion Eagles’ first assignment as the country’s premier collegiate tournament gets off the ground at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay with Ateneo starting its quest for a sixth title in seven years.

SCHEDULE: UAAP Season 86 basketball first round

National finished third last season, and coach Jeff Napa has made it no secret that they will be shooting to improve on that starting Saturday with their 4 p.m. clash with Ateneo.

“Definitely, it will be a great competition this season,” Napa said Wednesday during the tournament’s official launch. “Every school deserves to be called champion. It’s about how we perform and how we prepare our players. Rest assured we will be ready to compete.”

Santo Tomas and the returning Pido Jarencio take on the University of the East in the 2 p.m. opener, with the Growling Tigers assured of improving on a 1-13 mark last season after a massive recruitment frenzy featuring several one-and-done players.

Fearsome roster

Pido Jarencio UST Growling Tigers UAAP

Pido Jarencio returns as head coach of the UST Growling Tigers. Photo from The Varsitarian

Jarencio calls the shots again after being away for a decade, and a Final Four appearance seems feasible after getting several big names during the off-season.

Baldwin, meanwhile, will have a roster that has been put to several tests in the past three months, that Japan stint counting as the toughest one.

There, Joe Obasa, who will play one season, had a taste of top level action being a late-bloomer. Ateneo will also be without Forthsky Padrigao, the prodigious guard who left the team two months ago to deal with some personal matters.

But the Eagles have a truly fearsome roster on paper, with a couple of talented rookie guards like Shawn Tuano and Kyle Gamber having had all the time to blend well with veterans Chris Koon, Geo Chiu and Kai Ballungay.

“I would love to have Forths with us,” Baldwin had said in Japan. “But it is what it is and we will make do with what we have.”

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Jared Brown is ready to be that prime guard for the Eagles, with Mason Amos also looming to be a force that would make Ateneo a solid pick to at least return to the finals.

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