The View From the Armchair: The Finals

We’re where we wanted to be, the finals, against our greatest rival, Ateneo. The most anticipated matchup in collegiate basketball will unfold on Sunday in the sold-out Araneta Coliseum. Nothing in collegiate or amateur basketball in the Philippines comes close to this event.

How the Archers got here

The season started out with analysts predicting a scrum among five teams which were expected to contend for the final 4: La Salle, Ateneo, UE, FEU, and UST. Adamson was considered as a dark horse capable of pulling some surprises (and they did!), while nothing much was expected from UP and NU.

The Green Archers’ campaign in the eliminations was rocky and fraught with ups-and-downs, ending with a 10-4 record. The Archers swept UP, Adamson, NU, and UST, split their games with UE and FEU, and lost twice to Ateneo. The Archers were plagued by an assortment of injuries, resulting in a less than full strength lineup throughout the eliminations. Along the way, just when he was beginning to show what he’s capable of, we lost Marko to the same ACL injury that sidelined him last year. Simon was also sidelined for a few games because of that terrible whiplash injury against UE in the first round. JV played sick in one game, while James and Rico limped through some games with sprained ankles. LA sat out a game due to a strained neck.

Coach Franz had to split his time between coaching La Salle and the national youth team, and was out for 2 games as a result. In his absence, Coach Jack steered the Archers to 2 wins. Franz returned in time for the 2nd round game against Ateneo but the team was unable to pull off a win against the Blue Eagles. During this stretch, Coach Jack’s father passed away. Our condolences, Coach Jack.

The Archers’ game up to this point has not been as consistent as some supporters would like. The Archers were not able to flash the dreaded pressure defense for much of the tournament, and had to rely on their offensive prowess to defeat their opponents. Few games were won by big margins, reflecting the improvement in the quality of the other teams.

On the other hand, the Archers managed to pull off close wins in crunch time despite some uncharacteristic miscues in the waning seconds. The victories over UST were nail biters, with a total winning margin of 3 for those 2 games. The last game against FEU was a pulsating come-from-behind win which was decided only in the last 15 seconds.

With the departure of Ty, Cholo, Brian, OJ, and Kish, the Archers lost much of the veteran composure and smarts. Holdovers JV, Rico, James, Peejay, JWalsh, Simon, Bader, Ferdinand, Rejan were joined by rookies LA, Maui, Hyram, Joshua, Jovet, and Manoj. The backcourt, long conceded to be the Archers’ strength, was affected by the graduation of Ty and Cholo, with only JV and sophomore Simon returning from last year’s core. Coach Franz conceded early in the tournament that this line up was among the weakest he had ever coached, but this team still managed to get to the finals.

Up next – the Blue Eagles for all the marbles

The Blue Eagles are the strongest team on paper, and proved it by dropping only one game throughout the season. They totally wiped out UE’s aspirations with a dominant 70-50 victory over the hapless Warriors last Sunday. On the way to the finals, Ateneo defeated the Archers twice in games that the Archers were not able to showcase their best game. Some attribute the losses due to the improved Ateneo defense as well as the Archers’ inability to hit their free throws. Whatever the reason, even Coach Franz has admitted that the Green Archers are the underdogs in this 3-game series.

What the numbers say in the 2 games against Ateneo

Offensively, Ateneo has the edge. In the 2 games so far, Ateneo has averaged 72 points versus the Archers’ 65, has a better percentage from the field: 2pt fg: 48% vs 42%, overall: 44% va 36%. It’s only from the 3point area that the Archers’ shooting is better: 36% vs 14%. However, the Blue Eagles can shoot from outside, with Tiu, Reyes, Salamat, and even Buenafe and Baclao; in their playoff game against UE they hit 6/14. Free throw shooting (75%) is a strength of Ateneo, so it’s not a good idea to send them to the stripe.

Rebounding is in favor of Ateneo: 41-37, although the Archers pulled down more offensive rebounds against Ateneo with 13.5 against the Blue Eagles’ 8. When the Archers miss, the tall frontline of Ateneo tends to get the caroms. In the 2 games, Ateneo hauled down 33 defensive boards against our 23.

The Archers set up their teammates more, and this translated to an average of 13 against Ateneo’s 10 in those 2 games. Although Salamat is the league leader in steals, the Archers were more active in this area with an average of 6.5 against Ateneo’s 2.5 in the 2 games we played against them.

The Archers also took care of the ball more, turning the ball over only 11.5 times against Ateneo’s 16.5. Interior defense is Ateneo’s forte, with the Ateneo bigs getting 7 block per game against the Archers’ 3.

Rico has done relatively well against Ateneo, tallying 16 points in each of the 2 games, averaging 9 rebounds a game, and not turning the ball over at all. Expect Baclao to try to be Rico’s shadow throughout the game. JV was tightly marked by a number of Ateneo guards, particularly his former SBC teammate Escueta, and struggled for 5 points in the 2nd round game after going for 19 in the first round. Despite the tight guarding, JV accounted for 3 assists in each game. Simon and Peejay emerged from sub-par games of 2 points each in the first round with 9 and 8 points respectively in the rematch. Simon played his role of playmaker to the hilt against Ateneo, dishing off an average of 4.5 assists a game. Bader recovered from a scoreless first game with 7 points in the second, while James suffered a shooting slump and collected only 4 points in the second game after a 13point first round performance.

In both games, Ateneo used the 3rd quarter to build up a lead that they were able to maintain until the end. They outscored the Archers 21-14 in round 1, and 18-13 in the second game. The Archers tried to finish strong, but in both games couldn’t turn it around.

The Archers likewise have a tendency to start out slow in the first and third quarters, frequently falling behind but also showing the tendency to pour it on towards the end of a quarter. The slow starts may help build up the opponents’ confidence in their ability to compete with the Archers, and can contribute to closer games. The Archers will have to start strong and take the lead early to prevent having to play catch up.

What the numbers don’t say – the intangibles

The Blue Eagles have been playing with a lot of confidence, and it showed in their playoff game with UE. They were prepared for UE’s pressure defense (which Coach Black claims is very similar to ours), although they had 22 errors in that game. The ball movement and passing was crisp, they executed their play patterns well, and were able to disrupt UE’s offensive rhythm enough to limit them to 50 points. Black likewise claims to know Franz’s game pretty well because of their long association in the PBA.

Ateneo’s defense was the best in the league in the eliminations, limiting opponents to 62.3 ppg. They do this with their half court defense, pressuring the guards once they pass the halfcourt line, and fighting picks and screens to stay with their men. Their interior defense is anchored on their big men, Al Hussaini, Baldos, and Baclao, who make it difficult for dribble penetrators to score by themselves. Baclao is among the leaders in shot blocks, and has the footwork to stay with Rico inside.The classic Pumaren screens and double screens have been well studied by the other coaches, and have devised ways to stay with JV, who they view as the most dangerous Archer scorer.

The Ateneo offense features the much-improved Al Hussaini as the post-up inside threat, with his hooks and short jumpers as his main weapons. Whenever the Archer defense double teams Al Hussaini, the standard Ateneo plan is for him to kick the ball back out to the perimeter, quickly swing the ball to a waiting weak side shooter on the perimeter (Tiu, Reyes, Salamat), or to a cutter. Occasionally they call Buenafe’s number to do a one-on-one either through isolation or dribble penetration. They also rely on their guards to get past their perimeter defenders into the lane where they pass off to a waiting teammate once the Archer 2nd line defender swings over. They also have the high post screens to free up their shooters Tiu and Reyes. Black has been using a big guard to complement the pg, and in recent games Austria has been filling this role, with Buenafe and Long as backup. To break the press, the Ateneo power forward sometimes takes the inbound, and since he’s usually taller than the Archer players who execute the press, can see enough to pass the ball to the wingmen in the front court.

Black has stated that his familiarity with Franz will allow him to prepare for the finals. The reverse is also equally true, and it will be up to Franz and his lieutenants to come up with countermeasures to disrupt the Ateneo game plans. We’ve seen the best of the Ateneo game already, and it’s unlikely that Black will deviate too much from what has been working so far. On the other hand, the Archer game has had its ups and downs, but the Archers have shown that they can gut out a win in close games.

Franz has shown a knack for taking the opponent out of its game, and this was most evident last year where Franz steered the Archers to playoff wins over opponents which had swept the Archers in the elimination rounds. In our last game against FEU, he again showed that the Archers can make the opponent play the game the Archers want – it wasn’t pretty, but they hung tough and pulled it off.

At the end of the day, we can cite all the stats, but these are just possible indicators of how the game might go. It’ll be how the coaches prepared specifically for this series, how well the players execute the game plan, and above all, how much they want it. We can only cheer them on.