The Ateneo Blue Eagles remain the gold standard in collegiate basketball. Powered by an intact core and mentored by seasoned coach Tab Baldwin, the back-to-back champions are still the undisputed favorites to win the crown this Season 82.
Opposing teams understandably prepare and reload in the hopes of eventually ending the Blue Eagles' reign. Baldwin has taught his players to disregard the bull's eye on their backs and just focus on their personal growth and development.
"We just continue to strive to be great individual basketball players who have the right attitude towards the game," said Baldwin. "That really eliminates worrying about your opposition because you have so much to worry about within yourselves."
Expected to lead the charge for the Blue Eagles are graduating players Thirdy Ravena, twins Matt and Mike Nieto, and Isaac Go.
"Hopefully, we'll have better leadership now that these guys have been part of the culture for four years. They've actually helped develop and establish the culture," said Baldwin. "We have four very good leaders and great role models for the others, and that's their job to make sure that they propagate the culture through their performance."
Baldwin, however, emphasizes that everyone on the roster has important roles to play in a system that does not rely on superstars and values the next-man-up mentality.
"We don't really tend to highlight individuals in any shape or form," said Baldwin. "They're all expected to either lead or follow. Even if they're following, they should be leading somebody."
In his fourth year as head coach, Baldwin's goal of helping his players improve on and off the court has not changed. He continues to preach to his team that the wins and awards are just bonuses in their journey as student-athletes.
"When I came to Ateneo, the job here is to fulfill the mission statement of the university," said Baldwin. "I think this university has a long and sound reputation of developing people for life. We believe that our basketball program should just be a reflection of that ... just another piece of educational puzzle for our players."
With their tried-and-tested system and culture already in place, Baldwin believes that the players' maturity and composure will be the keys to their success this year.
"[It's] handling the temptations of complacency ... and that takes maturity and composure," said Baldwin. "We believe that from a talent standpoint, after four years with these guys, we now have enough talent to win."
"We believe that we have a culture that's a winning culture. We believe that we have a system that can produce championships," Baldwin added. "It's when we deviate to being lazy and relaxed, and we would deviate if we didn't respect our opponents, so I think it's more of the attitude, more of the mental one this year."