The 81st season of the UAAP kicked off last Saturday with none other than NBA superstar Steph Curry gracing the festivities.
This surprise probably set the tone for what unfolded in the season openers - UP jumpstarting its campaign with a 29-point rout, NU coach Jamike Jarin spoiling Aldin Ayo's debut with UST, FEU finally winning over La Salle for the first time in three years, and Adamson stunning defending champion Ateneo.
It's still way too early in the season to predict anything substantial, but here are five things that we learned from that crazy opening weekend:
Super rookies are out to make a mark
Two freshmen debuted in style as they figured in an impressive showdown to kick off their collegiate careers.
Reigning Juniors MVP CJ Cansino topped for UST with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Dave Ildefonso delivered 19 points, seven rebounds, and three assists for NU. Unfazed by the senior level's bright lights, both rookies were instrumental in their respective teams' opening bids.
Cansino took charge for the Growling Tigers but their late rally proved to be insufficient to overcome the Bulldogs. Ildefonso, meanwhile, got plenty of help from his older brother, Shaun, and the rest of his teammates to come away with a win.
Both scoring outputs eclipsed the highest points from a rookie in an opening game since 2003, courtesy of Jeron Teng who produced 15 markers in his Season 75 debut with La Salle.
Debuting coaches are still feeling it out
It was a tough welcome for first-year coaches Aldin Ayo (UST), Joe Silva (UE), and Louie Gonzales (DLSU) as they made their respective debuts with their new squads. All three mentors, however, remain unfazed knowing that instilling a new system takes time.
Faced with a daunting task of pulling the Tigers out of the cellar, Ayo knows that he needs to be patient with the process. His team, comprised mostly of rookies, fell short against the more experienced Bulldogs on opening day. While he did not see any silver lining from the loss, he pointed out that the Tigers will continue to persevere and compete as a way of giving back to the UST community.
Silva, a two-time UAAP juniors champion coach, considered the Red Warriors' loss to UP as a rude awakening for him. "Well off the bat, I said it's going to be a struggle. I never said that it was going to be easy. But I think it's a challenge. For me, I welcome challenges," he said, vowing to do better in their next games.
Despite the departure of two-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala and sensational forward Ricci Rivero, the Green Archers still have several weapons at their disposal. This showed for most of their tight game against FEU, up until the Tamaraws' veterans took over down the stretch to escape with a 68-61 triumph. Gonzales remains optimistic, knowing that they just need to figure out how to execute better in the endgame.
UST, UE, and La Salle still have the whole season ahead of them to adjust to their new coaches, iron out their kinks, and bounce back from their opening defeats.
Bright Akhuetie lives up to the hype
UP has come a long way from being a perennial cellar-dweller to a Final Four contender. Brighter things are definitely coming now that Bright Akhuetie, a transferee from Perpetual, has made his debut for the Fighting Maroons.
The Nigerian big man flexed his muscles in the paint, tallying 15 points, 18 rebounds, and three blocks to help propel UP to a lopsided 87-58 victory over UE. Akhuetie conspired with old reliables Juan Gomez de Liaño, Paul Desiderio, Jun Manzo, and Javi Gomez de Liaño to counter the Red Warrior's zone defense and pull away in the second half.
It was worth the wait for the Diliman faithful, especially with the 6-foot-7 Akhuetie insisting that he's still far from his peak form. Let's see how he fares when he and the rest of the Fighting Maroons collide with reigning champion Ateneo on Wednesday.
Hard work pays off, as exemplified by Adamson
Adamson dedicated the last few months preparing for its battle against Ateneo. Coach Franz Pumaren, Papi Sarr, Jerrick Ahanmisi, and Jerome Lastimosa said as much in the press conference following their successful takedown of the Blue Eagles, 74-70, last Sunday.
Ahanmisi starred with 23 points, including the buzzer-beating half-court shot that shifted the momentum to the Falcons' side. Lastimosa also made an impact on his debut, serving as a spark plug that boosted his teammates' confidence. From scouting the opposition to designing a sound game plan to executing the plays to a tee, the whole Adamson team delivered. More than proving that Ateneo is beatable, the Falcons sent a statement to the rest of the league that they are legit contenders this season.
Ateneo is not invincible
Given the Blue Eagles' roster depth and pre-season achievements, pulling off a sweep in their title defense was highly likely. But on the very first game of the season, they crashed back down to earth.
It was an uncharacteristic loss for Ateneo. The players never recovered when a well-prepared Adamson squad stole the momentum in the waning seconds of the first half. For a team that usually displays a high level of discipline and composure, that kind of performance seemed like a huge glitch in the system.
This does not mean, however, that the Blue Eagles are no longer heavy favorites. If anything, this just makes them scarier. Experiencing an early setback will just fuel their already burning desire to defend the crown. And while everybody's making a big deal out of this stunner, it's just business as usual for the team.
As Coach Tab Baldwin said: "Of course you guys think there are asteroids falling outside and the world is ending. We don't. We talked about this, we said that we are everybody's championship game. Now we know what that actually means, now we know what that feels like. Now we have to live up to our word that every one of these games is the only one that matters. If we can do that, I think we'll be fine."