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Stats Don’t Lie: What’s UP with the Maroons?

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How quickly things have changed for the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons. Two weeks ago, the Maroons were in euphoria as they won their first two games in convincing fashion against the UE Red Warriors and De La Salle University Green Archers. Many believed that they were on their way to a Final Four appearance, which, after several years of losing, made them the talk of the town.

Analysts and fans pointed to several reasons for UP’s turnaround. Some believe that the boys finally bought in to the coaching staff’s system. Others pointed to the leadership and maturity that Jett Manuel has brought back to the team. But most importantly, insiders have attributed to UP’s rise to their much improved defense.

Entering the weekend, the Maroons were leading the league in several key defensive categories, including defensive FG%, defensive 3PT%, and most importantly, defensive rating. Scouts noticed that the Maroons were much more aggressive and disciplined in what they wanted to do defensively, which was a big reason why they have been much more competitive than in the past.

However, after their loss to the National Univeristy Bulldogs last week, UP’s vaunted defensive rating was knocked down to 83.6 (from 80.1), pushing them down to #3 in defense. Worse, this brought down their record to 2-3, pushing them down the standings to its current spot at #6.

UP-S78-Zone-Defense-First-three-gamesOne reason why they’ve struggled lately is because of the drop off in defending the 3. In the first three games, opponents shot a combined 7/58 (12%) from the 3. Over the past two games though, FEU and NU shot 12/38, good for a solid 31%.

The biggest reason for this drop off? UP’s zone defense. In the first three games, opponents shot just 1/16 against the different zone defenses that the Coach Rensy Bajar’s troops threw at them. Against FEU and NU though, UP’s zone defense allowed teams to shoot 5/16, as their rotations were just a tad too late.

UP-S78-Zone-Defense-Last-two-gamesMoreover, the team struggled guarding the ball screen the past two games, more specifically, the ball-handlers. After giving up a PPP (points per possessions) of just 0.37 on shots taken by the ball handler in their wins, opponents scored at a PPP rate of 1.44 in their losses.

Part of this is due to the opponents’ personnel – Mike Tolomia, Gelo Alolino, and Ed Daquioag are all great at using ball screens to score. Nevertheless, UP will have to shape up its defense, especially as it takes on Ateneo’s Kiefer Ravena and Adamson’s Joseph Nalos in their next two games.

Now, these are just two of the more finer defensive details that the Maroons need to take care of to move forward. If they want to just focus on the basics, they’ll have to brush up on one major fundamental in defense: not fouling.

UAAP78 - NU UP - AbatayoUP is currently the worst at giving up free throws, as it has a free throw rate of 31.1. This has translated to opponents shooting an average of 31 FTA per game. In contrast, UST and FEU are giving up just 16 FTA a game, nearly half the amount of UP. No matter how good their defensive FG% is, if they keep sending opponents to the line for easy shots, they’ll be giving up easy points, every single game.

In spite of the recent mishaps, UP has the makings of a solid defense. It will always give them a legitimate chance of beating any other of the UAAP teams.

On the other side of the ball though, it’s a lot uglier. The Maroons offense just hasn’t generated enough points to give it a better shot at winning. UP is sitting DEAD LAST in offensive rating, producing just 76.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s lower than the 0-6 Adamson Falcons.

The reasons behind this are numerous. For one, after structuring the offense around forwards JR Gallarza and Mark Juruena last season, Coach Bajar has turned the keys to the offense over to his talented backcourt of Jett Manuel, Paul Desiderio, and Diego Dario. Those three alone are responsible for over 50% of UP’s offense.

UAAP 78 UP vs. UE - DarioRelying on the rest of the players to produce is basically a crap shoot. No one has consistently put points up on the board. After those three, the next highest average belongs to Dave Moralde at just 4.8 PPG.

The biggest problem is that the Maroons have no reliable inside presence that can finish drop passes from the guards, or even go one-on-one in the post. Gallarza, last year’s featured player, barely gets any touches, and is more of a catch and shoot forward. Juruena prefers to set up his teammates with nifty passes. Gelo Vito has been converted into a stretch big, who almost exclusively shoots threes. Kone has zero offensive moves, and while he has nice upside, remains a project.

UAAP 78 UST vs. UP - Gallarza jumperThe best bet of the four to step up is Gallarza. He shot a solid 41% on catch and shoot 3s last season. Perhaps UP could run some of their sets that get shooters open (like their staggered screens play). The problem with JR though, is that he can’t get on the floor (just 13.2 MPG) as his defense remains sub-par.

Lastly, the problem with having a guard-oriented offense is that it’s heavily reliant on outside shooting. Despite their statuses as heroes around UP, opponents have keyed in on Manuel and Dario, and their combined shooting FG% outside the paint is 28.7%. So despite their gaudy offensive numbers, over the course of a season, expect the two to find it increasingly difficult to generate points efficiently.

Despite the recent struggles, the Maroons still have a solid chance of reaching their goal of making the Final Four. Their last two assignments are Ateneo and Adamson, two teams which they stand a good chance of beating. If the Maroons can solve it’s free throw problems (admittedly, a big challenge when defending Kiefer Ravena) and find anyone in their front court to step up (paging JR Gallarza), we may just see them sitting a tidy 4-3 after the first round of play.

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Vic Manuel says Alaska yet to return to contender status

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Photo by PBA Images

Even if they have won their third straight game coming from a 0-2 start in the 2018 Philippine Cup, Vic Manuel thinks that it’s still not enough to tell that the Alaska Aces should be considered as one of the topflight teams in the league.

“Hindi pa rin masabi, kasi lahat ng team ngayon, talagang malalakas na eh, hindi na basta-basta easy yung mga game eh,” said “The Muscleman” Sunday night, after he and the Aces took down Barangay Ginebra, 97-83, at the Ynares Center.

The way the Aces have been playing this 2018 is remarkably different from the way they did last 2017, where they raked in more losses than wins. For Manuel, it’s partly because of the team regaining their competitive fire.

“Sa practice pa lang, talagang nakikipag-compete eh. Walang easy kahit sa practice, talagang bigay-todo lahat,” said the 30-year-old, who has been with Alaska since 2014.

“Sobrang aggressive, kaya yun, nadadala namin sa game.”

It also helps that the Milkmen have been healthy so far this season, unlike last year where they couldn’t even field a complete line-up in almost every outing. Manuel knows it too well, as he had been injury-plagued last season.

“Yung injury ko talaga, hindi madali eh, kasi sa tuhod talaga, sa left knee,” said the six-foot-four forward from Nueva Ecija. “So pinu-push nila ako kung ano ang kailangan ko gawin. Ayun, nagbubunga naman lahat.”

Now, eyes are on the Aces if they can keep this streak of theirs going. And for Manuel, who led the Aces with 18 points and five rebounds against the Gin Kings, all they need to do is to sustain what they have right now in their next games.

“Kailangan every game, focused pa rin kami, mas maging aggressive kami,” he said.

“Kung anong mga ginagawa namin nitong mga last three games namin, kailangan dalhin pa namin sa mga susunod naming games.”

Apologies to LA Tenorio

After the bout, Manuel had actually planned to approach Ginebra’s star point guard LA Tenorio regarding the spat they figured into late in the third quarter, after the former undercut the much bigger Manuel near the rim.

But Manuel made it clear that he wasn’t going after Tenorio to get back at him. All that he wanted to do was to apologize, as he found out that Tenorio was just trying to help him get back up and not trying to instigate something.

“Sabi niya, ‘bakit mo ako binigyan? Itatayo na nga kita eh.’ Nahiya din ako sa kanya. Magso-sorry sana ako, eh wala eh, lumayo na siya eh,” Manuel shared with a chuckle.

“Lalapitan ko sana eh, pero umalis agad.”

That incident was just one of the many things that frustrated Tenorio. Aside from absorbing their second straight loss, he couldn’t get things going, as he only scored five on a dismal 1-of-13 shooting from the floor.

“Magandang bonus din sa’min yun kasi medyo masama yung nilaro niya,” said Manuel.

“Swerte na lang siguro kami.”

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Calvin Abueva rejuvenated with return of physical play: ‘Masarap maglaro’

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For Calvin Abueva, it feels great to play in the PBA nowadays.

The Beast, who has always been known as one of the league’s most physical players since entering in 2012, was all praises for the way the officiating has changed this 43rd season — by just letting all the players play.

“Mas gumanda yung tawagan ngayon, naging physical nga. Naging exciting para sa mga tao, mas marami na nanonood ngayon eh,” said Abueva moments after their 97-83 victory over the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, Sunday night.

As has been said many times, physicality had become something controlled over the last two years. Abueva knows it too well, having been a casualty, as he has paid a bevy of penalties during that time.

And now that it is a thing of the past, the 6-foot-2 bruiser feels much better, knowing that he can display his brand of basketball once more.

“Masarap maglaro, talagang pisikalan,” said the 29-year-old forward from Angeles, Pampanga. “Siyempre makikita naman natin kung sinasadya o hindi, basta katawan lang.

“Pisikal. Yun yung magandang laro di ba?”

Aside from the comeback of physicality, what makes Abueva beam even more is the way the Aces have been playing in the 2018 Philippine Cup. After a 0-2 start in the tourney, they have now booked their third straight win.

“Nung 2017 parang nilubog na namin yung losing streak namin doon. Ito 2018 na at panibagong destination na naman yung ina-ano namin,” said Abueva, who had nine points, nine rebounds, and five assists against Ginebra.

“Sustain muna namin ‘to… Sana magtuloy-tuloy ‘tong winning streak namin.”

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Alaska takes advantage of Greg Slaughter’s absence

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For the streaking Alaska Aces, their stunning 97-83 victory over the favored Barangay Ginebra San Miguel on Sunday night was partly made possible by the absence of one key player: seven-foot behemoth Greg Slaughter.

The 28-year-old center, who was averaging 20.67 points and 10.3 rebounds prior to Sunday, did not play against the Aces due to a hamstring injury. How he incurred the injury has yet to be determined.

“There’s a small person named Greg Slaughter who didn’t play; I think he has an impact on the game,” quipped coach Alex Compton after the match.

“[They missed] a guy who I think is gonna win an MVP soon in Greg Slaughter.

“Sometimes dito sa liga natin, you have to take advantage when opportunities come your way. You don’t want anybody to get hurt [though],” added Compton.

With Slaughter out of the way, the Aces’ big men feasted.

Vic Manuel top-billed with 18 points and five rebounds, and elder statesman Sonny Thoss turned back the clock with a 17-point, four-rebound outing.

“Malaking bonus na rin sa amin, kasi wala nga si Greg kaya nakuha namin yung panalo,” said Manuel.

“Yeah it definitely helped,” added the six-foot-seven Thoss, who shot 6-of-12 from the floor and made four of his freebies.

“He’s a big guy, he’s a big presence inside so it took one big guy off our shoulder.”

Slaughter was approached and asked by scribes regarding his injury, but he was not in the mood to comment. No one can blame him, though, since the Barangay have slipped to their second straight defeat after a 2-0 start.

“I’m always there in practice, going over our gameplans. But it’s better if you ask our PT,” he said.

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Alaska completes turnaround at Greg Slaughter-less Ginebra’s expense

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A strong second half surge was all the Alaska Aces needed to turn back the heavily-favored Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, 97-83, and book their third straight victory, Sunday night at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.

The Aces, who have yet to lose this 2018, have now improved to 3-2. Meanwhile, the Barangay absorbed their second straight loss and have dropped to 2-2.

“I was telling the guys na parang ang dami nating iniisip, hindi natin ginagawa yung ginagawa natin noong nakaraang dalawang linggo. Sabi ko relax lang tayo,” said coach Alex Compton, sharing what he told his wards that sparked the win.

Vic Manuel led the Milkmen with 18 points and five rebounds. Sonny Thoss turned back the clock as he made 17 markers on 6-of-12 shooting, while Chris Banchero supplied 14 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

The Aces were trailing by eight, 36-44 at the half, but it became a different ball game come the third chapter as they outscored the Gin Kings, 37 to 19, to erect a favorable 73-63 cushion heading into the game’s final 12 minutes.

From there, Alaska kept their foot on the gas to sustain their lead, which grew to as much as 18, 85-67, after their 6-0 spree — punctuated by Banchero’s lay-up plus a foul — with 6:14 remaining in the final frame.

Ginebra still tried to make one last push as they inched within 10, 75-85, but baskets by Thoss and Kevin Racal propelled Alaska to an 89-75 lead with 3:42 left to play — more than enough to knock out their counterparts.

“I was glad to come away with the win,” added Compton. “Sometimes, we have to take advantage of opportunities coming your way. You don’t want anybody to get hurt but when two number one picks on the other team aren’t playing… There.”

Jvee Casio had 13 markers for Alaska, while Calvin Abueva nearly had a double-double of nine points and nine boards along with five assists in 20 minutes.

Aljon Mariano had 15 points, nine rebounds, and three dimes for Ginebra, who — despite having Sol Mercado back in the fold after ankle issues — missed the services of Joe Devance and Greg Slaughter due to injuries.

Japeth Aguilar, Scottie Thompson, and Kevin Ferrer each scored 12 for the Barangay, with Thompson adding five assists. The trio combined for 15 of Ginebra’s 43 rebounds.

Alaska will aim to extend their streak versus the Blackwater Elite on Saturday, January 27 at 4:30 PM, while Ginebra will look to end their slump against the Phoenix Fuel Masters on Friday, January 26 at 7:00 PM. Both games are at SMART Araneta Coliseum.

The Scores:

Alaska 97 — Manuel 18, Thoss 17, Banchero 14, Casio 13, Abueva 9, Teng 9, Cruz 5, Enciso 3, Potts 3, Exciminiano 2, Magat 2, Racal 2, J. Pascual 0.

Ginebra 83 — Mariano 15, J. Aguilar 12, Ferrer 12, Thompson 12, Caguioa 8, Cruz 8, R. Aguilar 5, Tenorio 5, Mercado 2, Taha 2, Wilson 2, Jamito 0.

Quarterscores: 26-23, 36-44, 73-63, 97-83.

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