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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.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Stats Don't Lie: What's UP with the Maroons?    One 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.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Stats Don't Lie: What's UP with the Maroons?    Moreover, 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.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Stats Don't Lie: What's UP with the Maroons?    UP 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.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Stats Don't Lie: What's UP with the Maroons?    Relying 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.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times Stats Don't Lie: What's UP with the Maroons?    The 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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