NCAA Midterm Grades

Aldin Ayo's Letran Knights have been a revelation in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournamant. | File

And now the real tournament begins.

With the formality of the first round over, it should be clearer which teams are going to contend for at least a Final Four berth and which squads fall out of it, if they hadn't already.

Of course, we all know the standings. Aldin Ayo and the Letran Knights surprised everyone by pulling the rug from under the preseason favorites and zooming to the top. Nothing feels better than silencing critics with your success. So well done, coach Aldin.

San Beda and Perpetual Help lived up to the hype somehow as they're breathing down the Knights' necks at joint second. Arellano U is at fourth while Jose Rizal and Mapua are not that far from gate-crashing into the magic four. Somewhere in the bottom are four teams - Lyceum, St. Benilde, Emilio Aguinaldo and San Sebastian. Unless these teams can conjure something, it will be mission impossible to turn things around. But of course, this is basketball. Anything can happen. Ayo reminded us that.

Let's not rate each team because their win-loss records are enough to sum up their respective campaigns most especially for the bottom-feeders. What we will do instead is answer some questions that people usually ask of the NCAA.

Can Letran keep up its pace and sustain what it did in the first round?

We all know that the Knights' first round success can be attributed to their aggressive, hyper-energetic type of play, not just on defense but on both ends. Meaning, Letran has exerted so much effort that it's hard to tell if they have anything left in their gas tank. Also, they will have two players who were drafted in the PBA, Kevin Racal and Mark Cruz. Getting drafted to the pros is actually a double-edged sword; players either get inspired and improve their play or start to think of themselves and become more careful since they're already thinking of the future and not put themselves in danger of getting injured. But knowing Racal and Cruz, they're fighters. They will see the Knights until the end.

It's also worth-nothing that Letran's "unpredictability," to coin Ayo, is now predictable. The element of surprise is now gone. The whole NCAA knows that Letran is no longer a team to trifle with, so we expect them to device plans or splice together strategies to beat Letran. Heck, I'm sure they've already studied the Knights' tendencies, weaknesses and strengths. So it will be safe to say that it will be a stretch if Letran can repeat what it did in the first round. But I'm sure Ayo and the Knights will prove me wrong again. So go on, embarrass me again.

What is your expectation of San Beda?

The Lions will start their second round campaign on a bad foot after Ola Adeogun was suspended for putting some "air vent" on the glass door of one of the locker rooms at The Arena. San Beda, as if it mattered, will be some few thousands poorer because of it. But I see this Adeogun suspension as a blessing in disguise because you could just imagine how he'll play in his return to action. I pity San Beda's next opponents because I'm certain as the sun will shine in the morning that Adeogun will be a wrecking ball. He will show no mercy. No more "Mr. Nice Guy" for Ola. Let's not forget, Baser Amer is returning, if not soon, at least late in the elimination round or in the Final Four where I'm pretty sure the Lions will end up in the top two, possibly first.

Which teams do you think will make the Final Four?

I'm not saying San Beda is unbeatable, but I think it's a shoe-in to make the Final Four. I'm pretty wary of Perpetual Help because of the Earl Scottie Thompson factor. If he starts to think ahead (Clue: Ginebra) and slows down, then the Altas are in trouble. They couldn't afford a lesser Thompson. Bright Akhuetie, the Nigerian athletic specimen, doesn't know how to create his own shots. He needs to be fed. And only Thompson can do that effortlessly. But if he stays true to form, I'm counting the Altas in.

Letran, if it could win four or five, will come through. Arellano U is the most dangerous team among the Final Four contenders because Jio Jalalon will be more brutal. The only concern is the inconsistency of Dioncee Holts. If he can at least hold his fort, then the Chiefs will have a chance. I was a little disappointed with Jose Rizal. It was one of the serious title contenders approaching the season but ended up No. 5. It's probably the hype, which has become their burden.

For Jose Rizal to succeed, Poutuouchi must level up his game. No ifs and buts, but he must. The Bombers will be eaten alive by the likes of Akhuetie, Adeogun, Holts, Lyceum's Jean Nguidjol, EAC's Laminou Hamadou and Mapua's Allwell Oraeme if he couldn't stop his free fall. The bright spot for Jose Rizal is Tey Teodoro, who has raised his game and could pop up in the Best Point guard conversation with his recent elite plays.

As for Mapua, CJ Isit is returning in a couple of weeks after a freak elbow injury, Andretti Stevens vowed he'll give it all. Josan Nimes must return and muster his old self - an unstoppable scoring threat who can not only create his own shots but also for his teammates. And the Cardinals have a dynamite defensive weapon in Oraeme, who has astronomical rebounding and blocking averages. He's like Bill Russell, Ben Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo, Wes Unseld all rolled into one. And have you seen their phalanx of guards? They're a delight to see. It's also refreshing that Mapua gave Atoy Co assistant Randy Alcantara more responsibility. The guy, if you happen to not know the guy, turned Mapua's high school team into a contender and came one shot away from unseating the Cubs last year. So I think it's going to be San Beda and a dog-fight for Letran, Perpetual, Arellano, Jose Rizal and Mapua for the last three spots.

Who do you think will win the MVP award?

If the award can be given to a team, I'm giving it to Letran for their astounding play. That is my kind of MVP. But no, it's an individual award and the highest at that. Arthur dela Cruz has slowed down a bit in the last two games, allowing Akhuetie to close the gap. Thompson, Jalalon and Letran's three-headed dragon of Racal, Cruz and Rey Nambatac are MVP dark horses. Oraeme is lurking somewhere behind with his monster games. It will help him a lot if Mapua starts to win game because won games count. And also, a player is disqualified to win the MVP plum if his team failed to make it to the Final Four. The Cardinals will do Oraeme a favor if they make a big run and make the post-season. Otherwise, it's going to be a two-man race between dela Cruz and Akhuetie. But I'm going out on a limb by saying that Akhuetie will win the MVP. Unless, of course, Perpetual Help crashes out of the Final Four, and hand that trophy to dela Cruz on a silver platter.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoeySVillar

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Joey Villar is a contributing columnist for Philstar.com. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of Philstar.com.

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