The University of the Philippines' Season 81 was nothing short of historic. The Fighting Maroons ended a 21-year Final Four absence and their Cinderella run concluded with a Finals appearance for the first time since 1986. It was a dream season, complete with game-winners, improbable comebacks, and dramatic storylines.
In Season 82, UP now has a legitimate shot to claim the championship and end its 33-year title drought. After seasons marred with bitter disappointment and utter embarrassment, the Fighting Maroons are now favored contenders and no longer pushovers. But with their recent success, now comes the expectations.
"Our intention now has to be very clear. Before, we fell short because we were still catching our breath in the Final Four since that was a big accomplishment," said UP coach Bo Perasol in Filipino. "And then we entered the Finals, you're still out of breath because it's as if you're trying to chase your previous expectation. So it was a surprise of sorts and then the mindset of your intention isn't clear which is of course you have to win the championship.
"But now, although it won't be easy, but the intention is to maximize ourselves and really go all the way. [Reaching the] Final Four is okay because it's a step. You need to enter the Finals and when you get there, you still have to have something left. Your intention shouldn't run out. Your intention now is to win it, to win it all."
Perasol feels that the main difference this upcoming season is that their goal is clearer to them now than in seasons' past. Last year was fun and joyous because of their historic run and now, the real work begins.
Not only are the Fighting Maroons considered to be title contenders after being in the Finals a year ago, but they're coming in better than ever after acquiring elite level talent in Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero. Add Season 80 MVP Bright Akhuetie, Mythical Team member Juan Gomez De Liaño, and returnee-turned-team captain Noah Webb, plus a handful of veterans and steady role players, the team is stacked from top to bottom. But the newfound arsenal of UP might serve as a double-edged sword.
"What I'm excited about is before, we all know the struggle of UP before - the lack of firepower. Now, there's plenty. There's a lot of firepower," said Perasol. "My main concern is exactly that. Because it can't be all firepower. Everyone needs to defend, everyone needs to have roles. There's just really one basketball."
To foster chemistry, the Fighting Maroons went overseas. They went to training camps and tournaments in Las Vegas, Taiwan, and Japan to build relationships among teammates.
"All our plans in the offseason to prepare for the coming season were followed," Perasol explained. "Our objective is to integrate guys like Kobe, Ricci, so that they could have time together outside the Philippines with a ton of distractions. That's the reason why we really spent time away. That's the biggest thing. I would not say that we were able to reach a hundred percent in terms of chemistry and cohesion but it's really about time. But from where we were when we started in the offseason, it's a big improvement."
One of the main ingredients to cohesion is experience. Perasol knows that it'll take experience both on and off the court to become a solid unit. Apart from chemistry, the other concern is health. With a shortened season, the coach mentioned that staying healthy and injury-free will be critical.
As success invites expectations, the expectations also beckons pressure. And Perasol and his team is ready to take on the daunting task of winning it all.
"That's something that is new," the coach said about the pressure put on their shoulders. "Even last year, the expectations and the pressure were merely about getting into the Final Four. Now of course it's different, the expectations are different. I don't know because this is a first. It's not as if the expectation for us to be is in the finals every year.
"Collectively we don't have any experience with this kind of pressure to go all the way. So that's new. We're trying to work on it. Even when we say there's no pressure, the truth is, there is, there's still pressure. Which is good in a way because when there's stress and pressure that means the outcome is very important. Because without pressure, if you're not stressed or pressured to win, that means winning is not that important. So for us to feel that pressure, we feel the importance of that. That's why it's so important. But we have to take it the positive way. We can't freeze up and we can't be uncontrolled. We have prepared for this."
In the last three years, the UP has risen from being a pushover to a contender. Under Perasol's mentorship, the Fighting Maroons have increased their win total every season. They had five wins in Season 79, followed by six wins in Season 80. Last year, they racked up eight victories on their way to a runner-up finish. It has been a slow and arduous process of creating a winning mentality.
"The objective changes [every year]. In just our second season and up to last season, the program has already accomplished being disappointed in losses. That's what you want to change first that you're no longer content whenever you lose and even when you win. Those are the things that the program has accomplished. But every year, whatever you accomplish, should be your ceiling for the next season," said Perasol. "Because the truth is, UP hasn't won a championship. So we need to accomplish that objective first. In terms of the culture that we want to happen in UP, that's already accomplished, but the objective becomes different. It changes. It's about not being satisfied when you get five wins or six wins. Now you want to beat the best and you want to be the best."
The UP Fighting Maroons will take on the FEU Tamaraws in their season debut on September 4 at the Araneta Coliseum.