Magnolia eyeing strong showing in Philippine Cup

For the Magnolia Hotshots, watching their sister teams win titles in the 2019 PBA season is motivating them to get back to the top.

"It's not an issue," Victolero told ESPN5 when asked about being the only team under the SMC umbrella to not win a championship last year. "Of course, our motivation always is we want to go on top. That's really the big picture. But we need to start on small steps first."

Part of those steps is making sure the team is easing everyone into their preparations for the 2020 season -- a process which Magnolia made sure it only started after taking some much-needed break away from basketball.

"I think everybody was ready for a little bit of break," said Chris Banchero. "Of course we wanted to win, but at the same time we had been playing for over a year, year and a half almost. When you have some time off, it's refreshing. You let your body rest and for me I was able to get away from basketball for a little bit, which always helps, and then come back excited to play. I think that's how it was for everybody. I think it'll be good for us."

Even after a humdrum year where they notched one runner-up finish and suffered two first-round exits, the Hotshots maintained consistently maintained its identity of being arguably the best defensive team in the league. Magnolia allowed the least points per contest (89.5) last season and forced teams to shoot only 39.7 percent from the field and 29.3 percent on 3s -- both league-lows.

Victolero and his team, though, continue to tweak their work on the other end of the floor, where Magnolia posted bottom-three ranks (90.6 points per game, 41.4 percent shooting from the field, 30.6 percent from deep) last season.

"We're looking at solidifying our defense, especially in the half-court. We're putting emphasis on everything, even in our effort on the full-court. On offense, we're trying to preach patience and ball movement. We're really putting a lot of emphasis on those," he shared.

The premium is still going to be on defense, of course, and Magnolia made that clear when it re-signed Justin Melton to a two-year deal earlier this year.

"It's very big," Victolero said of the move. "He's a part of our championship (core). He's our best perimeter defender. That's really what we need from him. It's not the points, but the little things that he does for us."

Melton said the Hotshots will "go back at it" with the "same defensive mentality."

"I think that's what really carries us far in times that we've made the playoffs. It's our defense. We're not the biggest team, obviously, but we have our strengths, and our strengths is running up and down the floor and that pressure defense. If we can come back with our defensive mentality and bring it to this conference, I think we'll be okay."

Magnolia will also be leaning on some new additions. Aside from Jackson Corpuz, whom the team traded for last December in exchange for Aldrech Ramos, the team will also try to integrate rookie Aris Dionisio, the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Dionisio is currently playing with the Manila Stars in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) and hasn't really found a lot of time to mix it in with the rest of the Hotshots, but Victolero is hoping the 6-foot-5 forward comes around to add ceiling to a team that's set to miss center Raffy Reavis (appendicitis) for at least two more weeks.

"He might have a hard time adjusting because he hasn't really practiced much with us. Hopefully after MPBL, he can have more runs with us because he has a lot of adjustments he needs to make," said the coach. "He can play multiple positions. He can play through two to four. But the time of adjustment is a bit difficult."

Outside those adjustments, the goal is still the same: to make the finals for the third consecutive time in the Philippine Cup, but with a different result after losing its first two tries to the San Miguel Beermen.

"Sana walang tatlong bulok," Victolero laughed. "For the last two years, what's great was we were in the finals but we fell short each time. We could've gotten it with one stop or one possession."

An injury to June Mar Fajardo may have changed the complexion of the whole All-Filipino conference. The Beermen aren't heavy favorites to win their sixth straight title anymore, but many believe Magnolia isn't one of the top contenders.

The Hotshots, however, aren't about to bristle at the challenge.

"Many aren't considering us because of our lineup," Victolero remarked. "I think there are a lot of teams that are still really good: Ginebra, TNT, Meralco, NLEX, even NorthPort. I'll just try to challenge my players to compete. We'll see. We'll just try to prepare every game, every day and hopefully we are able to go far again and grab what we failed to win in the last two years."

"It's always a motivation, especially this conference 'cause it's All-Filipino. I feel like it's the most rewarding conference to win. So we're definitely motivated. We're hungry. We got new guys with us also who are hungry and who are trying to make a name for themselves. With extra energy added on to what we already have, I think we're dangerous," said Melton.

Added Banchero: "(Our goal is a) championship... not just this conference, but every single conference this year, we really need to make a push. I think we have the pieces, as long as everybody stays healthy. But championship this conference and nothing else."