The 10 teams of the NCAA are primed and ready to take on the brand new collegiate season. For most of the squads, this year will be about rebuilding, growing, and proving that they are among the league's best. As the 95th season of the NCAA kicks off Sunday, here are five lingering questions that will potentially shape the new season.
Can San Beda complete a 4-peat?
Without a doubt, the San Beda Red Lions remain the favorites heading into the new season. Having won three straight titles, they remain the barometer of success in the league.
However, a different challenge emerges this season as the new-look Red Lions figure life without stars Robert Bolick and Javee Mocon. Bolick averaged 16.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in his final year, and was the team's go-to-guy and arguably the league's most clutch performer. Mocon was a force in the paint, racking up 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds with ease. More than the numbers, the two were bonafide leaders on and off the court. They were the captains that stirred the ship of the San Beda juggernaut.
The Red Lions will now have to rely on a handful of veterans and a pair of second-year guards to carry them to the title. The core of AC Soberano, Clint Doliguez, Donald Tankoua, and Calvin Oftana, plus the potential of James Canlas and Evan Nelle still make San Beda a dangerous team.
San Beda will still win plenty of games and will most likely place among the top teams after the elimination round. The real challenge for them begins when the stakes are higher in the Final Four and possibly in the finals. Other teams will zero in on Nelle and Canlas and try to neutralize the production of Tankoua. When every possession matters in the playoffs, can they be patient and mature enough to grind out wins? Bolick and Mocon seemed to relish the opportunity whenever their team was backed against a wall. This San Beda team has to learn how to win when the going gets tough.
Can Lyceum finally get over the hump?
The Lyceum Pirates caught the league by storm in Season 93 with their up-tempo style of play. Spearheaded by CJ Perez, the Pirates went 18-0 in the elimination round before flaming out in the finals against San Beda. A year later, they showed vulnerability but were still a streaking wrecking ball en route to 15 wins and three losses. But yet again, they were halted by the Red Lions in the big stage.
Now without Perez, as well as do-it-all forward MJ Ayaay, can the Pirates finally reach the summit?
In terms of playing style, don't expect the Pirates to change anytime soon. The Marcelino twins, Jaycee and Jayvee, will now be in the driver's seat. They are explosive, quick, and play way smarter now than when they first came into the league. The Pirates will also utilize the services of playmaker Reymar Caduyac, enforcer Mike Nzeusseu, as well as their new additions Jayson David and Renzo Navarro. They will still stay pedal to the metal in every possession and rack up a ton of wins.
The adjustment for the Pirates is in the postseason. In the last two finals, when the game slowed down and the stakes went up, San Beda took them apart. The Red Lions forced the Pirates to play the halfcourt game and didn't try to fight fire with fire. If the Pirates go on into the Final Four and finals, they will have to figure out a way to score when the pace of the game is not on their favor. This is when the playmaking of the Marcelino twins and Caduyac will come to play. If they can free up the shooters on the wing while guys like David and Nzeusseu man the paint, Lyceum will be fine. The Pirates have to adapt against elite defenses in order to go all the way.
Who else has a shot at the title?
San Beda and Lyceum remain at the forefront of competition but the rest of the field is slowly gaining ground.
The Letran Knights are a Final Four favorite especially after their strong season last year. Their frontcourt's length, size, and talent are still above anyone else's shoulders. Jeo Ambohot, Larry Muyang, and rookie Pao Javillonar are ready to shackle opponents in the paint. Letran also has the size in the two and three positions as Jerrick Balanza will make his return after a brain tumor nearly cut his career short. The void left by star Bong Quinto will be difficult but still manageable. However, JP Calvo's elite passing and leadership on the court will be harder to replace.
The San Sebastian Stags are also hoping for a breakthrough after their forgettable season. The sheer talent of RK Illagan and Allyn Bulanadi might just be enough to carry them to the playoffs. After a rebuilding year tainted with a few forfeited games, the Stags are finally ready to make a huge run.
There's also the Perpetual Help Altas who barged into the Final Four last year. You can bet a Frankie Lim coached team is always going to be competitive even without MVP Prince Eze. On the other hand, the CSB Blazers are hoping to finally be consistent and get enough wins to gain a Final Four berth. The Mapua Cardinals, Arellano Chiefs, EAC Generals, and JRU Heavy Bombers will also give contenders a run for their money. However, the focus on the bottom tier teams right now is rebuilding with new head coaches and revamped rosters.
Who can emerge as the league's new stars?
Robert Bolick and CJ Perez were the faces of the league the past two seasons. Add Bong Quinto and JP Calvo, the league had many heroes to turn to. Their departure gives the opportunity to several players to take centerstage in Season 95.
The Marcelino twins of Lyceum are always fun to watch. The duo on the open court is a highlight waiting to happen. Speaking of tandems, San Beda's Evan Nelle and James Canlas will be the key cogs to the Red Lions' future as mentioned earlier. These pair of rising stars will share the spotlight for the top two teams of the league.
RK Ilagan and Allyn Bulanadi, the 1-2 punch of San Sebastian, are potential Mythical Team members. Ilagan is one of the best shooters in the league. He can hit you with a spot up jumper or shots off screens, or take you one-on-one and get a bucket. Bulanadi is the perfect compliment with his workhorse attitude. The utility forward can also space the floor and rise up for a triple.
The Blazers' Justin Gutang is a rising star himself. The second-year swingman is an elite shot-maker, highly capable of being the face of his team and the league.
Of course, there is the returning Kent Salado. If he's 100 percent back to his old self, his deadly combination of speed, toughness, and grit immediately separates him from the field.
Who are the rookies to watch out for?
A new season also gives way to rookies to make headlines.
NCAA Season 94 Juniors Finals MVP Paolo Hernandez is an immediate Rookie of the Year contender. He had an outstanding senior year for the Mapua Red Robins and will now take his talents to the next level with the Cardinals. Hernandez is a streaky shooter who does not shy away from big moments. Alongside Hernandez is fellow Mapua rookie Cyril Gonzales from the NU Bullpups. Gonzales is a fearless player who relentlessly attacks the basket.
For JRU, John Amores is being hailed as the team's next big thing. Amores is a 6-foot-2 swingman but has the built and size to bang bodies in the paint. He was a focal point for the Light Bombers on his way to getting a nod in the NBTC 24, ranking 17th overall. John Delos Santos, also from the JRU's Juniors program, will also try to make an immediate impact. He's an athletic point guard who can contribute for the rebuilding Heavy Bombers.
Other rookies worth mentioning are Jefher Egan of Perpetual Help, Gelo Sablan of Arellano, Kurt Reyson of Letran, and Ladis Lepalam of St. Benilde.