La Salle is coming off a 6-8 season that was full of letdowns, and frustrations. The team struggled all season; blowing big leads down the stretch, losing to teams at the bottom half of the standings, bad defense and predictable offensive sets.
After a sorry finish last season, we sometimes can’t help but think about all the “What Ifs”. Like what if Kib Montalbo did not injure his ACL in the preseason? What if Robert Bolick, Terrence Mustre and Matt Salem did not decide to transfer? Or the bigger question is what if Ben Mbala was eligible to play? Would the outcome been different? Most probably!
Anyway it’s time to move on. And for the Green Archers, they were exactly right in that approach just a couple of weeks after their UAAP Season 78 campaign ended.
La Salle’s first order of business was to look for a replacement for head coach Juno Sauler who resigned after three years at the helm, which includes a UAAP title in 2013.
In comes Aldin Ayo, fresh from steering the Letran Knights to their first NCAA title in 10 years in his first and only season head coach. As expected, his appointment came with much fanfare and criticism but in the end, it’s a move that what he believes is best for his development as a coach. He was up for the challenge.
A graduate of Letran and was part of two title teams in the NCAA back in the late 90s, Ayo becomes the first non-alumnus head coach of the Green Archers in three decades.
So what does Coach Ayo bring to the table? More than just his rugged, hard-nosed defensive philosophy, it’s also the ability to instill confidence and toughness. You would all agree that the Green Archers are a collective group of talented individuals but in the past two seasons, they appear to have lacked that mental edge that would put them way above the competition.
Some say that if he can lead a rag-tag Letran team to a surprise title run, what more with a talent-laden squad like La Salle? This line of thought does not necessarily follow as it all depends on how the players will respond to his system. Take note that unlike Letran, the Green Archers are composed of players who at one point were the top gun in their high school team. Are they willing to adjust, make changes to their game for the betterment of the team?
Let’s see if Coach Ayo can replicate “Mayhem” basketball in La Salle.
And of course there’s recruitment. With the team’s veteran core about to graduate after this season, management went to work in securing the best talent available to form the foundation for continued success in the future. Among the notable newcomers are UAAP 78 Juniors MVP Aljun Melecio of DLSZ, Ricci Rivero of LSGH and Justine Baltazar of NU.
But perhaps the biggest addition to the team this UAAP season is Mbala. And based on his performance in the preseason tournaments, he is definitely a game changer.
This story though does not start with an instant impact or instant glory. As we all know, with a new coach, there is always an adjustment period, no matter what the team composition is. It is just good that Coach Aldin Ayo wants to expose the team in as many games as possible to check the application of what they are doing in practice.
The team started the Coach Aldin Ayo era back in February when they joined the 3rd Engineer Demetrio Quirino (EDQ) Cup hosted and played at the TIP gym in Legarda, Manila. The team finished 4-4 in the elimination round and qualified for the quarterfinals.
For those who saw the games of the team on that tournament, you can really see that the boys were on adjustment stage. Being removed from playing full court pressure defense for four years (2012 to 2015) then learning to adapt once again on a coach who loves to thrive on non-stop defensive pressure, you can really see the day and night catching up effort the boys had to endure.
You can see missed man coverage assignments, players got easily blown out on defense during one on one situations, opposing teams scoring at will since the defense is not yet that organized, lack of fluidity on offense, and the most glaring observation of them all was that the team’s stamina and energy just won’t last for 40 minutes.
Players were caught huffing and puffing during the fourth quarter. The team will establish leads over their opponents in the first half, only to see that lead evaporate and cede the game to the opposition in the end. You can still see that mentally; the boys really want to fight but they just could not meet the physical demands of the mayhem system at that point.
The team skipped the playoff stage of the EDQ Cup due to their commitment on the Araw ng Dabaw tournament held in Davao City last March. This was a pocket tournament composed of the University of Visayas Green Lancers, and two Davao-based semi-pro squads namely, Montana Pawnshop, and Goldstar.
The pocket tournament was a good test since it was a mix of amateur and semi-professional action so both on a physical and mental standpoint, this would help the team mature on managing various game situations. Add to that, the team was considered the visiting team on this pocket tournament, and knowing how people in Davao patronize their home teams, this would also help the team to compose themselves playing in front of a noisy, boisterous crowd, almost similar to a UAAP environment.
On this tournament, the team finally started to get its groove as it swept the tournament, beat Goldstar of Davao in the finals and gave Coach Aldin Ayo its first championship as the head coach of our beloved green and white squad. More importantly, aside from the system improvements, there will be players that definitely will gain benefit from this new system. As mentioned on the earlier portion of this piece, the man they call the game-changer, Ben Mbala started to become comfortable with the system and has showed what he can do against bigger and more physical opposition.
Little did we know that this Araw ng Dabaw conquest will be the springboard to a more ruthless FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup performance. Although for sure, there will be continuous improvements and fine tuning here and there, but the observations made during the EDQ Cup seemed like a forgotten memory already if we compare the team’s performance in this past FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup.
The players seemed to have more spunk, angst, and aggressiveness and it looked like they are now more comfortable executing the new system, probably, the team is now starting to believe that they can go far and be successful running and adapting into it.
If we recall it correctly, we think this is the first time that the Green Archers won the FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup title with a sweep of all its games. We cannot even remember if this feat was accomplished on the past editions of this preseason tournament. The key takeaway on this preseason stint was the team showed that they can win ball games by playing hard, tough, physical defense and not just rely on their God-given basketball talent to create shots and win by being better against the opposing team on the offensive end.
No matter what the situation of the game is, the level of intensity on defense stays the same and we think this principle will be very, very valuable for this team moving forward in order to achieve success not just on a single season basis but possibly, for the long haul. The team may have swept its way winning the 2016 FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup but during the course of their journey on this tournament, the team experienced winning via a blowout, by pulling away in the fourth quarter, and just as what we have seen in the finals, the team won over Arellano University Chiefs by coming from behind and then not relinquishing the lead for good.
The right attitude and outlook towards games plus the experiences on the games of these preseason tournaments will serve as a key ingredient towards success this coming UAAP season 79 aside of course from what we think the most important factor of them all, which are injuries which will impede the team from performing at a very high level.
With the team practically intact, the addition of key pieces and a whole new system that has brought them much success in the preseason tournaments, the Green Archers are no doubt on the right track to make a serious run for the title this season.
There’s still about a month and a half before UAAP Season 79 starts and a lot of changes can still take place with regards to who will make the final roster of all teams competing.