The San Beda Red Lions and Letran Knights rekindle their rivalry as they take centerstage in the upcoming NCAA Season 95 finals.
The four-peat seeking Red Lions are fresh off their 18-0 sweep of the elimination round and show signs of slowing down. San Beda is looking for its 12th NCAA title in the last 14 years and 23rd in school history.
Letran, meanwhile, is back in the finals after four years. The Knights overcame two knockout games, beating San Sebastian and Lyceum, to enter the championship round. The last time these two met in the finals was in 2015 when they went toe-to-toe for an epic series that went the distance. The Knights won the title, their 17th in school history.
As San Beda and Letran add another chapter to their storied rivalry, here are five questions that might dictate the outcome of the series.
Will San Beda be well-rested or rusty?
The Red Lions have not played for nearly a month since sweeping the elimination round. They last took the floor in an October 17 game against the Lyceum Pirates to notch their 18th straight victory. They have been nothing short of dominant this season, winning games by huge margins. They will be tested early on against a Knights team that's peaking.
If the Red Lions come out sharp and determined despite their long wait, they'll easily prove why they're the best team in the league. On offense, they are first in shooting the basketball at 44.7 percent from the field, including pacing the league with 35.4 perimeter points. In addition, they aren't bad in points in the paint, pouring in 34.1 per game, good for fourth overall. Defensively, they hold opponents to 61.7 points, which is head and shoulders above everyone. They stifle to teams to 35.5 percent shooting and 22.8 points in the paint - both of which are league-best. They are simply a well-oiled machine on both ends of the floor.
San Beda has gained early finals berth many times before as the number one seed. However, almost a month-long hiatus will be tough to overcome for any team, especially when the bright lights of the finals are on.
Can Letran's size be the difference-maker?
Since the start of the season, Letran's size through nearly all five positions has been its trump card. The Knights' daunting frontcourt with the likes of Larry Muyang, Ato Ular, and Jeo Ambohot has always been there, but they have length in the wings and even in the guard position. Versatile swingman and leader Jerrick Balanza can be a three-man or even serve as a two-guard if the need arises.
Letran has to control the boards and get around its average of 45.2 per game. The Knights also have to utilize scoring in the paint which will also spread the floor and open up their shooters.
The Knights bested the Stags and the Pirates in the stepladder semis, but the two eliminated teams didn't really have the manpower to matchup. Lyceum's Mike Nzeusseu was a dominant force but he was virtually a non-factor down the stretch.
Will the MVP put up MVP numbers?
All eyes will be on league MVP Calvin Oftana and how he'll fare against the defense of Letran. In the regular season, he put up 15.6 points, while also tallying 8.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 blocks in 24.6 minutes of play.
Fortunately, San Beda isn't a team that relies on just one or two scorers. The Red Lions are number in assists with 19.2 and they score 105.10 points per 100 possessions. They love to share the wealth and Oftana won't be pressured to outscore the entire Letran team. However, the do-it-all forward can't afford to have a quiet outing. He needs to have his signature scoring sprees, which helped San Beda get on game-changing runs throughout the season.
The Knights can shut down anybody, even the league's leading scorer Allyn Bulanadi of San Sebastian and they'll surely put multiple bodies on the MVP. Pesky defender Bonbon Batiller can stay in front Oftana despite giving up a few inches in height. Balanza also might take on the challenge of shadowing the MVP.
Who will have the upper hand in the backcourt?
The finals will showcase two of the best backcourts in the league. San Beda boasts of its two Mythical team members Evan Nelle and James Canlas while Letran has two veterans in Bonbon Batiller and Fran Yu.
As his team's lead guard this season, Nelle has grown immensely. He slowly moved out of the shadow of San Beda great Robert Bolick and emerged as a leader. The sophomore guard has a keen eye in finding his teammates with a 6.7 assists average to show for. He's also a good shot from the perimeter and isn't afraid to get into the paint to get rebounds to quickly set the San Beda offense. His backcourt buddy Canlas is more of an explosive scorer and will be a tough handle for any defender. Canlas has also proven he can have high scoring outputs and his production will be critical to his team's success.
The duo of Batiller and Yu will surely be up to the task of hounding Canlas and Nelle. Yu has morphed into an elite playmaker and a clutch performer for the Knights. Versus Lyceum, Yu scored eight of his 20 points in the final frame. In the game before that, he snagged an important rebound to seal the win against San Sebastian. Batiller, meanwhile, is a rock solid defender. He has the size and speed to bother scorers and it'll be interesting to see which Red Lion he guards first.
Letran's defensive gameplan against the San Beda backcourt will play a huge role in the series. RK Ilagan dropped a career-high 36 points against them while Jaycee Marcelino followed with 26 of his own. Though the Knights still won, they have to do a better job defensively against strong guard play.
Will the Knights finally solve the San Beda puzzle?
Letran almost beat San Beda in the first round, losing by just four points, 70-66. In their second round meeting, the Knights were able to bounce back from a 17-1 first quarter deficit, but ultimately fell short, 76-63, as the Red Lions unleashed a brutal 20-0 scoring run in the third period.
The Knights have grown leaps and bounds as a team that can close out games, as evident by their hard-fought wins over the Stags and Pirates. However, the Red Lions are an experienced championship squad. Stars Robert Bolick and Javee Mocon may have left the lions' den, but Oftana, Nelle, Canlas, and Donald Tankoua are tough to beat in the clutch. Letran has to keep the game close in order for its closers to perform. Balanza and Yu are fearless in the endgame and that will give the Knights the fighting chance to finally take down San Beda.
NCAA Season 95 finals schedule:
Game 1 - November 12, Tuesday at Mall of Asia Arena
Game 2 - November 15, Friday, at Mall of Asia Arena
Game 3 - November 19, Tuesday at Mall of Asia Arena (if necessary)