The 91st season of the NCAA has been nothing short of spectacular.
In a wild season that saw six legitimate title contenders duke it out up until the last day of the elimination round, the season boils down to two of the most storied collegiate basketball teams in the country.
On one end, the most dominant collegiate basketball team over the last ten years, the San Beda College Red Lions, while on the other side is the championship-hungry Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights.
Being one of the most intriguing NCAA Finals series in recent memory, Tiebreaker Times had a chance to get the opinions of the NCAA Press Corps, a group of collegiate basketball beat writers from the print and online realm, about what they think are the keys for each team and who they think would win the coveted crown.
Joey Villar, Philippine Star, Philstar.com, NBA Philippines, Sportsmaryosep
If there is one favorite underdog story in my basketball-lazed life, these Lertran Knights of Season 91 have got to be one of a few. They’ve defied the odds all season by making it to the finals by sheer grit and heart, mindless of manpower deficiencies like lack of imports. They have three of the bravest and toughest players this year–Kevin Racal, Mark Cruz and Rey Nambatac. And a coach in Aldin Ayo whose analytics have made wonders this season. It’s easy to cheer for these guys because we all love underdog stories.
But I have to go with San Beda.
They have two imports, Nigerian Ola Adeogun and Cameroonian Donald Tankoua, who are more concerned in stopping people than making baskets. They have Baser Amer and Arthur dela Cruz who are NCAA’s version of Shakespeare and Einstein. Cerebral is the word. Bench depth is also their edge while championship experience is their ticket.
Nevermind that Aldin Ayo has been proving me wrong from the start.
And I don’t mind being proven again.
Theodore Jurado, People’s Journal
I think it will go the distance.
This is the last chance for Kevin Racal and Mark Cruz. Next year, no one knows what will happen to this team. But for Letran, they need to win Game One to have a chance to win the series. Kung ano yung tatakbuhin ng Game One nila will decide the series.
For San Beda, I think what happened against the JRU game (where the second unit closed out the game), will not happen again. This is the Finals, the expected rotation will be used by Coach Jamike. When the going gets tough, you have to rely on Ola Adeogun, Baser Amer, and Art Dela Cruz. Donald Tankoua will get his minutes also.
The biggest advantage of San Beda is the frontline because of Ola and Donald. Letran will have to work hard to defend those two especially sila Felix Apreku and Jom Sollano.
Game one will really decide whether Letran could win it all.
Cedelf Tupas, Philippine Daily Inquirer
Keys for San Beda
San Beda was far from its fearsome best in the elimination round. But the Red Lions are not the five time defending champs for nothing. They raise their game when it matters most and thats why they’ve been successful all these years.
Baser Amer, Ola Adeogun and Art dela Cruz save their best for last. The championship experience of the veteran trio cannot be overemphasized but depth is just as important.
Over the years, someone from the bench usually steps up to become the X-factor for the Lions. Last year it was David Semerad who gave the Lions a lift. The current team is filled with young players but that doesn’t mean they cannot make an impact. Jayvee Mocon, Amiel Soberano and Radge Tongco all proved in the Final Four win over Jose Rizal U that they are not awed by the big stage.
They have dependable gunners in Mark Cruz, Rey Nambatac, and Kevin Racal. But what set the Knights apart from the rest this season has been their work ethic on both ends, the willingness to fight for every possession. The Knights feed off their defense to spark their offense. And you cannot go wrong playing tough defense.
They pinned a first loss on San Beda early in the season by taking away Ola Adeogun’s influence with a swarming defense from the backcourt. San Beda has figured it out but somehow there’s a growing feeling that Letran coach Aldin Ayo can still squeeze more from his team especially on the defensive end.
The Knights proved this season they can win through defense or matching a hot shooting team shot for shot. The Knights are not as experienced as the Lions in this stage but they have something intangible: A hunger to win the title that has eluded the Knights the past ten seasons.
Reuben Terrado, Spin.ph
It’s going to be a tough series to call.
San Beda has the championship experience and they have shown they are a deep team after their win over Jose Rizal University in the Final Four. Letran has also proven they can play toe-to-toe with San Beda because of its defense.
I think the key in the finals is how Ola Adeogun will perform in this series. The chances of San Beda to win the title rests on him. How Letran will contain Adeogun will play a role to the Knights’ chances of winning the crown.
Christian Jacinto, Manila Bulletin
It’s a tough series to predict. Both teams work really hard and are proud institutions. Hindi magpapatalo yung dalawa na yun and both teams have very good coaches.
Very contrasting yung nangyari for both squads as nobody expected Letran to be here while everyone expected San Beda.
Mahirap mag-decide but definitely San Beda has the edge based on personnel. Letran, on the other hand, has hunger and determination. Both teams are well coached but the impact Coach Aldin [Ayo] brings is different from what we have witnessed.
I could be eating my words after this but I think now is the time for Letran to win the championship after a decade-long odyssey.
Letran in three close games.
Randolph Leongson, Inquirer.net
As much as coach Jamike Jarin denies it, I think San Beda has a distinct advantage against Letran. Just looking at how it outclassed JRU in the semis shows how deep San Beda’s bench is.
Letran must find other contributors outside of the trio of Mark Cruz, Rey Nambatac, and Kevin Racal to match the artillery the Red Lions have.
But, and this is a big but, once coach Aldin Ayo reads this and sees that the majority thinks San Beda will win, for sure e will go through hell and high water just to will his Knights to the promised land and make all of us look like fools.
Norman Riego, ABS-CBN Sports
San Beda will claim an unprecedented sixth straight championship after prevailing over Letran in three close contests.
While first-time head coach Aldin Ayo will prove himself to be on the level of Jamike Jarin, the Red Lions’ depth will still be the difference between the archrivals.
Matthew Li, Tiebreaker Times
The San Beda College Red Lions have been the most consistent team in the NCAA this season. Out of the six contenders this season, only the defending champions have not lost in back-to-back games. Seniors Art dela Cruz, Baser Amer, and Ola Adeogun were never rattled when they lost and displayed uncanny poise to recover from it.
On the other hand, after an outstanding first round that saw the Letran Knights shoot up the standings, the Knights struggled in the second round that saw them fight for the twice-to-beat advantage. In the majority of their losses, the Aldin Ayo-mentored squad struggled with slow starts that eventually led to the losses.
Defense was never the question for the Knights, it’s their early-game offense that is questionable, specifically the first quarter. Against the Red Lions, Letran absolutely cannot start slow especially with the ocean-deep depth of the five-time champions. As they say, “mababaon lang sila.”
If the troika of Mark Cruz, Kevin Racal, and Rey Nambatac buck off the slow starts, I see this series going into three hard-fought games with the third game being a toss-up. However, if they still can’t find the cure for their first quarter struggles, the San Beda Red Lions have a huge chance of sweeping their rivals, 2-0.
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