Revitalized Magnolia banking on 'league-best' chemistry in title retention bid

Magnolia's early exit last PBA Commissioner's Cup was kind of a blessing in disguise for head coach Chito Victolero.

"It's good and bad for us. It's bad because we weren't able to get what we wanted, which is a deep playoff [run]. We didn't get lucky. But good because most of our key players were able to rest," Victolero told ESPN5.com.

Having strung together back-to-back finals trips in the 2018 Governors' Cup and in the Philippine Cup early this year meant that the Hotshots would not have a lot of that luxury. The lack of a breather became apparent in the midseason conference, where the team -- after struggling out of the gates and barely making the playoffs -- fizzled out and was swept by Ginebra in two first round games.

"It's not an excuse, but of course maybe from my analysis I think it's probably a factor. Maybe we [didn't] have that recovery for the mental aspect of the game like what happened to us in the Philippine Cup. But it's not an excuse," Victolero explained in Filipino.

"We've been in Finals back-to-back... It's not an excuse, but of course, my players need rest. That's what we kind of lacked. That's why I gave them a break [of] more than four weeks," he added.

That amount of time away from the game proved to be what they just needed.

"I just told them that we need to come back hungry. And I saw that from them -- the hunger, the passion," he observed.

Being rejuvenated should aid Magnolia in its title defense in the season-ending tournament. Despite the looming threat that other marquee teams pose, the Hotshots believe they still have all the tools to be able to score a repeat of last year's finish.

"[W]e're not a super team, but we have the talent and the chemistry. That's what I always say. Our chemistry is the best among the 12 teams, I think, in my opinion. That's our strength," said Victolero.

"We're the defending champions. It's added pressure. But I told my players that we just have to do what we did before: try to work hard every single practice and compete against each other. That's the most important thing for us right now: competing amongst each other so that we hike our level," the coach added.

"I think we have one of the best teams in the league. Every conference, it's wide open. It's always wide open, and we have one of the best coaches in the league, we have one of the best rosters in the league," returning import Romeo Travis noted. "I feel like we can always win. Every game, we can win. So if you got a team like that, you can win a championship."

Even in what they could consider a down conference, Magnolia still looked imposing at times. The offense sputtered most nights (league-worst 92.8 points per game on 40 percent shooting, tied for the second lowest rating), but the team was still able to survive thanks to their defense, where they recorded the second-most steals (8.69) and the third-most points scored off turnovers (18.9) per contest in the eliminations.

Having Travis back should accentuate their strengths on that side of the floor. Aside from his uncanny ability to intercept passing lanes (team-best 2.1 steals last year), the 35-year-old is also a vocal leader who's quick to point out the areas where the Hotshots could still clean up.

"It's an advantage. The chemistry factor is big, and his leadership and his familiarity in our league are what's huge for us," Victolero said of his import. "With the help of Romeo, his leadership... it's going to be a big help for us this conference."

"I didn't come here planning to be a leader. It just happened. I grew into the role and I embraced it, so I'm going to continue just to give my opinion. That's all I do, give my opinion. I give and receive. Just as much as anything I can say, I can receive it as well," said Travis.

The import was certainly blunt in stating how much the Hotshots still need to develop in an 87-83 tune-up game loss to Barangay Ginebra on Friday, where Travis had 11 points before sitting out most of the second half.

"We have a lot of work to do. We played okay, but we have a lot of work to do," he said. "We have a lot of growth to do. We have some guys that need to grow. We all need to grow. No one in particular. I can just speak for myself and say that I have a lot of work to do in these next two weeks before the opener, and that's just what I'm going to do: continue to work. That's all I know. Work and keep getting better."

Travis, though, noticed a lot of improvements from a roster that's finally healthy and nearly complete heading into the final two weeks before the opener.

"A year has passed and a lot of guys have gotten better. We're going to continue to get better. I like Rome Dela Rosa's aggressiveness, always Ian (Sanalang), and it's good to play with kuya Ping (Marc Pingris). It's my first time playing with Ping, so it's going to be interesting to see how our games go together," Travis raved.

There's just a bit of a drawback in their build-up for the Governors' Cup as backcourt fixtures Paul Lee and Mark Barroca are still in China for the Philippines' ongoing campaign in the FIBA World Cup.

"Of course it's a concern. I just talked to my physical therapists to think of a plan. It's not just the physical aspect, too; it's also the mental part of it. Of course they're in China, far from their families and they're pressured in back-to-back games there," admitted Victolero. "It's heavy [but] they're tough, they're superstars, they find ways to recover."

But with all the pieces still seemingly in place, the coach is anything but pessimistic. "It's just what they show in practice. Their enthusiasm, the passion, the energy, the hunger. We're back to our old selves," Victolero beamed. "It's a new day, a new conference for us. We are very positive this conference."