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86th NCAA: Will the Stags repeat?

MEN AT HELM: Calling the shots for their respective teams in the coming NCAA men’s basketball championship are coaches, from left, Ato Agustin (SSC-R); Richard del Rosario (St. Benilde); Vergel Meneses (JRU); Chito Victolero (Mapua); Nomar Isla (EAC); Frankie Lim (SBC); assistant coach Tino Pinat, representing coach Louie Alas (Letran); Leo Isaac (Arellano U); and Boris Aldeguer (UPHSD). JUN MENDOZA

MANILA, Philippines - The 86th NCAA basketball season unfurls on Saturday with host San Sebastian eyeing a second straight championship and San Beda seeking a return to glory as the league remains upbeat despite a nine-team field.

The Stags, who foiled a four-peat feat bid by San Beda with a finals sweep, open their campaign against the dangerous Letran Knights at 2 p.m. while the Lions renew their rivalry with the Jose Rizal Bombers in the main game at 4 p.m. of an expected explosive twin bill at the Big Dome.

NCAA president Fr. Anthony Morillo, OAR, of host San Sebastian yesterday officially ushered in Season 86 of the country’s oldest league with a theme “Youth Speaks@86: Empowerment, Leadership and Nationalism.”

“We’re really excited about the coming season,” said Morillo in yesterday’s league launch at the ELJ Building of television giant ABS-CBN in Quezon City.

Morillo, who was accompanied by top officials of the participating schools including Management Committee chair Frank Gusi, said the league would have nine teams this season instead of 10 since Angeles U Foundation backed out.

“We’ll be having only Arellano U and Emilio Aguinaldo College as probationary members this year since AUF opted not to compete,” said Morillo.

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Former member Philippine Christian U is knocking on the league’s door again but Morillo said the board would still deliberate and study the matter.

“The board is going to discuss it,” said Morillo.

As to the guest speaker during the inaugurals, Gusi said they’ve invited boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and CNN Hero of the Year Efren Peñaflorida but they’re awaiting reply from the two.

“It will be a surprise, you’ll know on opening day,” said Gusi, who added the opening rites would be highlighted by spectacular production number and parade of participating teams.

The Stags lost last year’s Finals MVP Jimbo Aquino but retained the core of their champion squad headed by Calvin Abueva and seasoned veterans John Raymundo, Dave Najorda, Gilbert Bulawan, Ronald Pascual and Ian Sangalang.

Fielding this same roster, San Sebastian topped the CHED Games, the PBL and more recently, the Fil-Oil/Flying V Championship.

“Jimbo is a big loss but we retained the rest, we’ll have an equally strong chance of winning again,” said San Sebastian coach Ato Agustin, a former PBA MVP. “But we can’t discount the bids of other teams because they’ve improved a lot.”

San Beda, which is hoping the 60 games they played since November last year including its training trip in the United States last summer shall have strengthened the team, is pinning its hopes on its talented rookie recruits.

Former RP Youth standouts Jaypee Mendoza and California-based Kyle Pascual, Fil-Aussie sibling Anthony and David Semerad and transferee Mark Villahermosa are expected to provide some clout off the bench.

“I have five rookies who are part of my rotation, let’s see how they respond during actual games,” said San Beda mentor Frankie Lim.

On Sunday, it will be Mapua against Perpetual Help at 2 p.m. and Arellano against EAC at 4 p.m. at The Arena in San Juan City.

Aric del Rosario will be league commissioner for the second straight season.

The league will also witness the coaching debut of former PBA star Vergel Meneses, who took over the coaching helm from Ariel Vanguardia, and the return of Leo Isaac at Arellano taking over from Junjie Ablan.

Louie Alas of Letran, Boris Aldeguer of Perpetual Help, Chito Victolero of Mapua, Richard del Rosario of St. Benilde and Nomar Isla of EAC are back in the fold hoping for a better season.

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