Three years ago, the De La Salle Green Archers stood at the pinnacle of UAAP men's basketball after winning their ninth title in school history. They boasted a roster filled with talented veterans and a budding young core. Fast forward to Season 82, La Salle's usually solid basketball program finds itself in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in the Final Four era, the team will miss the semifinals for the second straight year.
The Green Archers have been rebuilding for the past two seasons. The aftermath of the departures of two-time MVP Ben Mbala, multi-titled coach Aldin Ayo, and rising star Ricci Rivero after Season 80 are still reverberating two years later.
La Salle took a gamble after losing to a Final Four playoff against the FEU Tamaraws the year before. The Green Archers made key changes in their roster in the hopes of recapturing their lost glory. They hired a new coach in Gian Nazario and team consultant Jermaine Byrd, along with three one-and-done Fil-foreigners. La Salle had its moments this season, but it ultimately fell short of its goal after losing to the UP Fighting Maroons on Sunday.
"Really proud of how they competed for me all year. We just came up short. We have to give credit to UP. Their veteran players came through in the clutch," said Byrd. "It's just a good game. I'm sorry to the community. I'm sorry to the school for us not making the Final Four, but they won the game."
The Green Archers were riddled with inconsistencies all season long. They earned back-to-back wins only once when they defeated the UST Growling Tigers and NU Bulldogs midway through the elimination round. For the most part, they could not sustain their play on both ends of the floor. Through its 13 games, La Salle was 3rd in points allowed, limiting opponents to 73.54 points on 37.6 percent shooting. On offense, the Green Archers put up an average of 73.31 points, good for just 4th in the league. In other words, the team was merely satisfactory in its six wins and seven losses.
It also seemed that La Salle never figured out the right combination of players. Granted that a retooled roster and a new head coach would need time to adjust, but the Green Archers did not have the luxury of time to keep experimenting. At the start of the season, La Salle largely played around with having three guards on the floor. Combinations of Aljun Melecio, Andrei Caracut, Encho Serrano, and new additions Jordan Bartlett and Joel Cagulangan were thrown in alongside two big men. Later on, the Green Archers went with size often putting in Justine Baltazar, Jamie Malonzo, and Brandon Bates for long stretches. Baltazar, arguably the team's best big man, registered the most minutes at 31 a game. Going with a taller lineup gave positive results, but could not be sustained due to fatigue.
In Sunday's do-or-die game against the Fighting Maroons, there were still instances of La Salle trying to feel which five would best compete with UP's talented roster. Hardly-used big man Tyrus Hill, who only played seven games prior, logged in five minutes. Bartlett also saw action and provided three points in five and a half minutes of play. La Salle scrambled to field in the right personnel especially since veteran guard Caracut struggled, going scoreless and committing five turnovers in roughly 20 minutes of action.
Hand-in-hand with La Salle's inconsistencies and erratic lineups was incorporating its one-and-done talents. Malonzo was the lone bright spot with impressive numbers of 14.25 points and 9.75 rebounds. Against UP, he put up 17 points and 11 rebounds, and was one of the players who kept La Salle within striking distance throughout the game. James Pado and Keyshawn Meeker, on the other hand, did not see action in their must-win game. Pado, a 6-foot-9 center, played just six games and scored a total of 15 points for the season while Meeker registered only eight points in four games. This season was a trial run of sorts for La Salle but the margin of error is slim for players trying to make an impact in just one year.
"I thought it was good. I thought those three guys came in and gave us what they could. It's a good experiment," Byrd said on the three recruits. "I enjoyed coaching those guys. All those guys will be professional players in the Philippines. They just got done with the college season so I asked them to come here and go through college again and learn on the fly about the atmosphere in the UAAP. It's kinda tough, but they all handled it extremely well. They've all handled it like professionals and I wish those guys the best. I love them for what they've done for me and my career."
After another failed bid, all La Salle can do is look forward to the future. Next season will be the final year for veterans Melecio and Baltazar.
"I wouldn't say that I didn't give my all this year, but I'll put in extra effort for next year since it's my last year," Melecio said in Filipino.
Melecio has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the four years he's been with La Salle. He was part of the Season 79 championship in his rookie season and was on the wrong end of a finals series against Ateneo the following year. Then in the next two, he failed to reach the Final Four. As one of the leaders of the team, his experiences can serve as learnings for the whole team.
Personally, the 5-foot-8 playmaker is leaning on the words of his former coach Aldin Ayo, who is now calling the shots for UST.
"They both hurt (last two years) because we didn't make it into the Final Four," said Melecio. "But there's still what coach Aldin said to me before, that if something bad happens to you, cherish it, hold it, then that's where you'll get strength because your struggles will become your inspiration that you can use in your life."
La Salle will look to close out its disappointing season on a positive note as it takes on the Adamson Falcons on Wednesday. Afterwards, time will tell if the Green Archers can bounce back and eventually reach the playoffs and the finals once again. For Byrd, his status as team consultant is also up in the air.
"Unfortunately, that's not a decision for me, but I would love to. Coming from me, I'm an experiment as well. I'm a first-time head coach," Byrd said. "I thought we continued to get better as the games went along. I thought once the guys figured out my system and I figured them out and the league, I thought we got better. It's just that we came up short.
"Just like I told the guys in the locker room, we wanna finish it off for our captain Andrei. We wanna finish it off for the one-and-done players and we also wanna give some confidence to the other guys coming back next year."