There probably aren't a lot of people happier to see University of Santo Tomas land itself a shot at fighting for the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball crown than Kevin Ferrer, who was at the forefront of the Growling Tigers' last appearance in the collegiate league's grandest stage in 2015.
Ferrer, now one of the top options at the wing for the NorthPort Batang Pier in the PBA, beamed with pride after watching this year's UST squad overcome all sorts of adversity in the stepladder semifinals against Far Eastern University and University of the Philippines to set up a best-of-three showdown with two-time defending champions Ateneo de Manila University.
"I'm happy and proud of them," Ferrer told ESPN5.com in Filipino Friday. "I know what they went through was very difficult, but they were still able to get that spot. Now they have the chance to bring the crown back to España. I saw that this UST team plays together and enjoys together and they trust the coaches, the system. That's why they're there."
Four years removed from starring for a UST side that was minutes away from claiming the title before falling to FEU in Game 3 of the Season 78 finals, the forward has probably seen enough to know whether or not a certain team had the makings of championship contender.
That was exactly what he saw right before the UAAP season began, when a selection of the university's alumni -- bannered by Ferrer, Meralco's Allein Maliksi, Rain or Shine's Ed Daquioag, Barangay Ginebra's Aljon Mariano, and Alab Pilipinas' Louie Vigil, among others -- were denied an easy win by the current Growling Tigers, who scored a 95-87 win in a second-half comeback flurry.
"I knew they'd go far," Ferrer noted. "I saw even though they're rookies, they give their best and they play as a whole on the floor. They just trust each other and the system. They also have a lot of experience since they played in the D-League. That's huge."
"They play together. They pick up each other, and there's no hero ball. They play as a team. And the puso, pride, palaban mentality is there. Trusting coach (Aldin) Ayo and his system is also a big factor," he added.
No team shot more long bombs than UST under Ayo's fast-paced system that gives everyone the green light to keep firing away from downtown -- the Growling Tigers are shooting a league-high 36.3 attempts per game, seven more than the next team -- and while it remains to be seen whether the same approach will work against a Blue Eagles side allowing the least perimeter points (24.7 per game), the least points per game (59.5) and the second-lowest field goal percentage (34.2), Ferrer thinks the same system that brought them to the finals could tow them all the way to the promised land.
"I think they can carry that over to the finals," Ferrer said of UST's "three-or-key" system. "They got there because of that system. They don't have to change that because if they do, the players' mindset might be muddled. They're all already playing on one page under the three-or-key."
Still, the forward knows it's going to be an uphill battle against the threepeat-seeking Ateneo, which hurdled UST in both elimination round games, and a top-notch tactician in coach Tab Baldwin, whom Ferrer played for in the Philippines' gold-medal run in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games.
"Coach Tab's players are very, very disciplined. He's handled me before. I saw how he coaches the European type of basketball. He doesn't depend on a superstar. Lots of cutters, lots of movement. That squad's really intact. That's why they went 14-0," he observed. "[And] all of them already have finals experience, too."
Anything is possible, though -- which is exactly what Ferrer told the Growling Tigers before they take on Ateneo in Game 1 of the best-of-three title series Saturday at the Araneta Coliseum.
"I told them they just have to stay together from start to finish and to just trust coach Ayo because he's a champion coach. Just show up with a lot of energy and with the 'Puso, Pride, Palaban' mentality. They should also be more disciplined and sacrifice a bit more; there's only a few days left in the season and they can't have any distractions, like social media and staying up late. They need to focus," shared Ferrer.
"Everyone's beatable. That's basketball. You can't really tell what will happen even if you're dominating. The eliminations are a different story from the finals, because every game in the finals is a do-or-die game. You have to give your best every game, every play. It's all important," he added.
The odds are stacked against the Growling Tigers, sure, but for Ferrer, that might just be enough again for the team to rise above the opposition.
"UST are underdogs, but it's better to play as underdogs because there's no pressure to play. They just have to give their 100 percent and to keep playing together," said Ferrer. "It's difficult. But of course, we're rooting for UST here. They're going to be champions."
"Sana magdilang-anghel ako," he closed with a laugh.