Eight months after learning a shot at a sixth straight All-Filipino title would have to be done without June Mar Fajardo, San Miguel's tune and approach to the shortened 2020 PBA season has remained consistent.
"It's a [tall] order for us because we know in all our championships, June Mar is a big factor. It will be difficult for us," coach Leo Austria said in Filipino during the team's media availability Sunday. "But I'm banking on our experience. We don't know yet what will happen, and for me this is an open field for everyone."
It's not like they need any reminding. Fajardo, the reigning six-time Most Valuable Player, isn't just a "big factor" whose loss could easily be compensated by shuffling through the Beermen depth chart. They know it, and everyone else has known it all year long, even as the coronavirus pandemic once threatened to halt the season and take that unique chance away.
"Without June Mar, it gives our opponents some confidence. That's the biggest problem," Austria conceded. "What I noticed is they are really eager to play in this conference because we don't have June Mar, and they think they can win the championship. Give credit to them because they work really hard."
But San Miguel works just as hard, too. Austria doesn't really see the added rest as an advantage for the Beermen, who admittedly possessed tired legs after winning eight titles in the last five seasons, but it certainly won't hurt a team that's known to start slow early in conferences.
"That's always been our concern because we're always in the playoffs. After the finals and the championship, the new conference would immediately start. That's why we were always struggling in the first few games every conference," he said.
One advantage they could have, at least, is knowing the level of dedication and professionalism it takes to go all the way -- something Austria says he's seen enough of from his players during the mandatory break.
"We have to evaluate our strength, our speed and our stamina. The skills are there. But what I also want to impart to them is the spirit, the mindset. Any kind of preparation you have in this bubble will be put into waste if you don't have a good mindset. The other teams' preparations and ours are always the same -- it's the same time, and it's the same amount of hours," he said.
"I'm banking on the experience of the players and their professionalism," added Austria. "We'll just do the usual things we did before. No pressure. Just enjoy the bubble, do whatever they want. We'll practice in the morning or afternoon. We're not forcing them to work out, though I'm happy for them because they work on whatever they think they're lacking."
That sort of single-mindedness shined through in the first PBA game of the season, where San Miguel blew out sister team Magnolia 94-78 to open their Philippine Cup defense last Mar. 8. Five players, led by Mo Tautuaa (20 points) and Terrence Romeo (19), scored in double figures. Two -- Tautuaa (11 rebounds) and Arwind Santos (18 points, 15 boards) -- recorded double-doubles.
"What I noticed in the first game was the commitment was really there, and everybody stepped up," he said. "We're happy that in our first game we were able to make some adjustments."
Even without Fajardo, San Miguel is still relatively deeper than most teams in the league. The usual size advantage posed by 'The Kraken' isn't there, but the team is hoping Tautuaa -- all six feet and eight inches of him -- can still present opposing frontlines a lot of problems by leveraging his own advantages both inside and outside the paint.
"He doesn't have to play anyone else's game. I think by doing that, it could help the team. And the good thing about his teammates is they understand the situation, they understand the abilities and capabilities of Tautuaa. And I'm hoping he will remain focused," said Austria.
It also helps to have a glut of battle-tested veterans like Santos, the last player to win MVP aside from Fajardo before the superstar center began his monopoly on the award.
"So far, I don't think about awards," said Santos, who floated the idea of a possible MVP bid after SMB's win over the Hotshots last March. "Those awards are something to be thankful for and every player really wants that. Personally I once dreamt about being MVP myself. But now, I'm just going to use it as a reminder that I need to double my efforts without June Mar.
"If my performance and my team's performance will be better as a result, I'll be happy with that. But if I perform well and I'm number one in stats but my team's at the bottom of the standings, I can't be happy about that. Even if I don't lead the statistical race or I'm not in the top 10, as long as we're contenders, I'm OK with that."
The league is teeming with contenders looking to prevent San Miguel from winning a second Perpetual Trophy, and off the top of Austria's head, five teams are fully capable of unseating the Beermen.
"For me, there's TNT and NLEX," he said, Before the season, Alaska was (also) really playing well and they rebuilt their team," he said. "[Y]ou cannot discount the experience of Ginebra, and Magnolia is always in the playoffs."
"Probably in the first few games, once we see everyone playing, we can identify who the contenders really are."
Santos, however, said they're ready to take on any comers.
"It really just depends on what we'll show inside the game. San Miguel has a tendency to relax against lesser teams. That's really our weakness, and we have to avoid that attitude," he said. "All of them have been preparing from the start, and we need to prepare for every single one of them. Because I love basketball, I'll play to win against anyone."
In recent years, the Beermen have emerged triumphant from all kinds of challenges hurdled at them on their way to a title. But this year, they -- and everyone else -- have a chance to show they can endure and prevail under the most uncommon and complex circumstances.
"This conference is really important for us. Whoever will win this championship is part of history. This is a very unique situation for everyone. It's a special championship," he said.
San Miguel will play its second game of the season against Rain or Shine on Tuesday, Oct. 13 (4:00 p.m. on One Sports and PBA Rush), in the bubble at Angeles University Foundation in Pampanga.