The UAAP Season 81 Final Four kicks off with the matchup between the second-seeded Adamson Falcons and the third-seeded UP Fighting Maroons on Saturday.
Let's take a closer look at their upcoming postseason duel.
How Adamson got here
Since Franz Pumaren took over the head coaching reigns, the school has become a perennial contender. For the third straight season, the Falcons are headed to the Final Four. This season holds more promise than the previous two as the Falcons enter the playoffs with a twice-to-beat advantage.
Pumaren and his team got it done on the defensive end in the regular season, limiting opponents to just 70.6 points, second only to the Ateneo Blue Eagles. They also held team to 37-percent shooting from the field. The Falcons don't come off as a hard-pressing team but they do surprise opponents whenever Pumaren unleashes his signature full-court pressure defense during certain parts of a game. The dreaded press can suddenly appear midway through a quarter, off a timeout, or even off a made basket. As a result, Adamson is among the league leaders in forcing turnovers at 18.3 per game.
On offense, the Falcons' primary weapon is Jerrick Ahanmisi. Recently included in the Mythical Five, Ahanmisi produces 18.0 points on a 44-percent shooting clip (41-percent from beyond the arc). He's a deadeye shooter who moves extremely well off the ball as he constantly weaves through screens. If needed, he can also get a shot up off the dribble or off a screen.
How UP got here
The Fighting Maroons are finally back into the Final Four after 21 long years. They came in as one of the favorites to make it into the postseason and they surely lived up to the hype.
Bright Akhuetie proved he deserved all the attention he got prior to the season. The former NCAA big man made his mark in the UAAP en route to an MVP season. The 6-foot-7 center out of Nigeria garnered 82.5 SPs (Statistical Points) to lead the MVP race and has been posting averages of 18.9 points on 60.5 percent field goal shooting, 14.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks.
But this season was far from perfect for the Bo Perasol-mentored squad. They dropped to as low as 3-5 in the standings in search of consistency and maturity, as if the expectations and the pressure weighed the team down. Fortunately, the Fighting Maroons were able to turn things around just in the nick of time. A huge reason for their timely rise was sophomore star Juan Gomez De Liaño. Last year's Rookie of the Year is providing 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.5 assists a game for his team. His transition from starter to becoming the team's sixth man seemed to have helped UP in a big way.
What Adamson needs to do to win
Adamson, being the defensive team that they are, will surely come up with a game plan against Akhuetie and the Fighting Maroons. UP is the league's number one team on offense with 80.3 points per contest and Akhuetie is the main reason for the team's productivity. Papi Sarr will be Akhuetie's primary defender, with guys like Simon Camacho and Sean Manganti providing help defense.
The Falcons can also opt to quicken the pace with their pressure defense to force turnovers. Even before Akhuetie gets the ball down low, pressure can be applied on the UP guards. Jun Manzo commits 2.4 turnovers while Juan Gomez De Liaño averages 2.9 errors.
Adamson's offense will be taken care of by the trio of Ahanmisi, Manganti, and Sarr. Still, they need to get contributions from guys like Jerom Lastimosa, Simon Camacho, Jonathan Espeleta, and Jerie Pingoy. Any of the aforementioned players can easily spark a quick offensive splurge or even a momentum-shifting run.
What UP needs to do to win
More than defending Sean Manganti in the dying seconds, the Fighting Maroons need to have a good start. In their first round meeting against the Falcons, they were leading for most of the contest. Manganti may have had his game-winner but UP's hot start proved critical. This was evident in the second round meeting when the Falcons got their turn to open the game with guns blazing. Gomez De Liaño and Akhuetie led an inspiring comeback in the fourth but it all came a little too late.
The Fighting Maroons need to put themselves in a winning position right from the get-go. They are the young team with no Final Four experience against a veteran squad who's hungrier than ever to reach the finals coached by a multi-titled mentor. Just as they have done this season, they need to gain experience fast and mature quickly and play to their potential.