The View From the Armchair – Game 1 vs FEU

Not a very good game. Not by a mile.

The Green Archers fell to FEU, 65-74, to start Season 74 on the wrong foot. It was a disappointing debut which highlighted the obvious experience gap between the Archers and the Tamaraws, last year’s runner-up.

The Archers started off strong, and led for most of the first half before FEU closed off the half strong to wrest the lead, which they kept for the majority of the game. FEU weathered La Salle’s high energy start, and made the necessary adjustments to take control of the tempo of the game. The second half was dominated by FEU behind a barrage of outside shots and crisp passing plays by Garcia, Cawaling, and Ramos. FEU created some separation with an 11-point lead and held the Archers at bay for the remainder of the game to coast to the win.

A good start fizzles out

The Archers fielded a tall team to start the game, with rookies Van Opstal and Torres manning the frontline together with Webb, and dela Paz and the comebacking Revilla as guards. The team actually raced off to a good start in the first quarter behind LA’s two field goals, leading FEU until the closing seconds of the quarter, before FEU managed to tie it at 18-all.

The first quarter saw our players rack up 10 early fouls to gift the Tams with 11 foul shots that allowed them to close the gap. More importantly, the majority of those early fouls were called on our frontliners. Torres, Van Opstal, and Mendoza had 2 each, and Andrada tallied 1. Their foul trouble limited the four to just 17 minutes in the first quarter, forced them to sit extended minutes for the remainder of the first half, and negated whatever height advantage we had. Compounding matters was the knee injury Andrada suffered in the second quarter, which forced him to the locker room and and raised fears that it could be serious. Fortunately, he returned to the game in the second half.

At the half, FEU had already taken a 2-point lead at 33-35 behind timely hits from Ramos, Cruz, and Tolomia. On our side, only Revilla scored more than 2 points in the second quarter as our point production dried up with only 2 field goals out of 16 tries. It could have been worse, but the Archers made 11 out of 15 foul shots in the quarter to stay in the quarter.

FEU extended the lead to 45-52 after 3 quarters as the Archers misfired badly from the field. In the 3rd quarter, the Archers only made 4 out of 19 attempts from the field and 4 out of 10 from the stripe. This allowed FEU to find their rhythm which became difficult to disrupt. Garcia, in particular, finally nailed a 3pointer en route to a 7-point quarter which gave him the confidence and momentum later on in the game.

In the third quarter, the zone defense also killed us. Both theirs and ours. We couldn’t hit the outside shot against the Tamaraw zone, while they exploited the creases in our zone to hit the open man. We coughed up the ball 4 times in that pivotal quarter, while they played a perfect 10 minutes without any turnovers. Our numerous missed shots and turnovers allowed FEU to rack up 11 fastbreak points while we had only 4 in that stretch. For some reason, the Archers couldn’t hit their shots, and only Tampus scored more than 2 points with 3. The offensive futility saw us tally only 12 points despite our pulling down 9 offensive rebounds.

The fourth quarter saw Garcia showcase his offensive skills as he almost singlehandedly carried the Morayta team to victory with 10 points behind very accurate shooting from the field and from the stripe. National team members Ramos and Cawaling combined for 9 points as the three Tamaraws almost matched the Archers’ total 4th quarter output of 20.

LA Revilla showed none of the rust accumulated over 2 years away from active competition by pouring in 7 of his 18 points in the 4th to prevent the Archers from falling farther back. Sam Marata was fielded in a last ditch effort to cut the lead, and he made only the 2nd triple of the Archers in the game, but it was a case of too little, too late.

What went wrong

Composure and confidence, to start with. The team’s composure went south during the crucial 3rd quarter when FEU’s Garcia, Ramos, and Cawaling led the Tamaraw charge. For a while, our team was unable to respond while the lead had ballooned to double digits and the Tams were in complete control and dictating the pace. When they were finally able to react, all they could do was trade baskets with FEU.

The Archers’ foreign training stints may have helped in the skills area, but presence of mind and grace under pressure are functions of experience and confidence, things which apparently the team is still lacking in despite the presence of veterans like Atkins, Villanueva, Webb, and Mendoza in our lineup. Skills-wise, this Archers team is seen as being capable of matching up with any other team in the UAAP, but mentally, they still seemed to be unprepared for the first game.

The player rotation left many supporters scratching their heads. Coach Dindo fielded in a lot of players – 15 in all. Only Reyes failed to see action, and in close games against tough opponents, experimenting with untested player combinations is highly risky at best. Only Revilla (30) and dela Paz (24) saw more than 20 minutes of action. This revolving door approach can work if the system is really geared up for it, the way former UST coach Aric del Rosario did during the UST 4-peat in the 90’s. However, yesterday’s tag-team substitutions could have prevented our players from getting warmed up enough to get in sync with each other, because errors abounded – 17 in all, while FEU (16) was slightly more careful with the ball.

Our starting frontline of Van Opstal (16 minutes) and Torres (20 minutes) saw limited action due to foul trouble. Their absence clearly told on our ability to control the boards, and while we outrebounded FEU 50-42, our interior defense was left wanting. We pulled down 27 offensive rebounds, which sounds impressive, but it was partly due to our horrendous shooting performance – 30% on 20 out of 67 attempts, 2 out of 11 from the 3-point region.

Another thing about our bigs – they must learn to avoid those cheap fouls that they seem to be prone to getting. Yesterday, their playing time was unnecessarily limited by their early fouls, affecting both our board work and interior defense. Interestingly, more than half of our 50 rebounds were pulled down by four of our small men – Atkins (9), Tampus (7), Revilla and Vosotros (5 each). Our starting frontline had 10: Torres-6, and Van Opstal-4, but they’re both above 6’6” and are expected to do more. Note to our big men – you can’t pull down any rebounds when you’re sitting on the bench due to foul trouble. Paredes, the Archers’ blocking terror last year, only managed 1 block and 1 rebound in a mere 7 minutes on the floor, as Van Opstal took most of his minutes.

With our outside shooting notably absent, FEU simply played zone most of the time and dared us to beat them from the long court. Unfortunately, they won the dare. Our array of shooters failed to hit the mark, maybe because they were not set up properly or because FEU had previously scouted our plays. Probably both. For example, that classic double screen that shooters of past years like Viaplana and Ritualo had used to great success in the past failed to free up Marata and dela Paz for that patented Archer catch-and-shoot play. Maybe FEU has just seen it done too many times.

While our press did slow down FEU, it failed to net us any real advantage. FEU showed that they had a ready press-break pattern which negated the traps our team threw in their backcourt. That zone press will definitely need some tweaking, particularly since all teams now have the press-break as part of their standard playbook. The generic press the Archers showed yesterday won’t get it done this year – our pressure defense should already have variations for the usual (read: scouted) patterns that the other schools employ. Any press/trap is a gamble – it will leave a man open, and most press-breaks of the other schools position a man in the middle of the court to take a pass and either give it back to the guard or dribble it across the half court line. Yesterday, that man was almost always left open as our rear defenders laid back to guard against a long forward / fastbreak pass. Voila! Press broken, and FEU had enough time to decide how they wanted to put the ball in the hoop. I guess that if you’re going to show a trap, you have to occasionally gamble by guarding the usual outlet passing lane in mid-court and hope that the opposing guards won’t be able to get off that long forward pass under extreme pressure. Otherwise, that middle man easily gets the pass, relieves the pressure, and the impact of the press fizzles out.

The key to good defenses is unpredictability. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years, the Archer defensive schemes have been fully scouted, and are therefore predictable. That’s fine, as long as there’s enough variability in how our players set up our defense to keep the opponents guessing. Not so yesterday, where the Tamaraws’ just lit up our zone with accurate outside shooting in those crucial stretches in the second half. They KNEW just how to break our zone (and we couldn’t break theirs because we couldn’t hit the outside shot). Our man-to-man seemed to be more effective, but it resulted in our getting into quick foul trouble. Our players will have to learn to defend without committing fouls. And we’ll have to change up the schemes often enough so that by the time they figure what we’re up to, the shot clock is almost gone.

Maybe the players got caught up in the excitement of the first game of the season. Maybe. That might explain the botched individual assignments on defense, where our perimeter players sometimes lost track of their men a few times which resulted in the Tams scoring on those plays. Or the half-a-step-slow perimeter defense which allowed penetrations by FEU’s guards, drawing our secondary defense to the dribbler, who would then pass to the open man under. Score a basket for FEU, and an assist. Oh yeah, FEU played more as a team, assisting 21 times versus our 14. For a heavily guard-oriented team, the 14 Archer assists are a huge letdown.

Lastly, foul shots, the perennial bane of the Archers. 23 out of 37 for 14 misses. We lost by how many? 9 points? We gave away 14 points and lost by 9. Of course, we’re not going to make 100% of our fts. But say, we made 75% of the misses – that’s 10 points. Hmmm, enough for a 1-point win. Miss one more, and it’s tied. Maybe wishful thinking. 62.2% accuracy just won’t get it done for us. Unfortunately.

What went well

In the early stretches, the Archers were able to control the pace of the game and even keep the lead. They limited one of the UAAP’s best offensive players to just 4 insignificant points in the first half. FEU just led by 2 after two quarters. It can be done.

When our bigs are on the floor, we can control the boards, and therefore force the opponents to play at our preferred pace. So the trick is to keep them in the game as long as possible.

LA proved that he is capable of being the future team orchestrator. Superb ball handling, accurate shooting, great ball control and passing, even a good nose for the ball as seen in his rebounds. He will be the future leader of the team while he’s on the roster. Oda Tampus also matured from last year, and will be a definite one-on-one operator who can drive or post up his defender.

Torres, Van Opstal, and Gotladera were the inside threat we missed in past years, and will be a formidable frontline for the foreseeable future, if they can avoid foul trouble.

Looking forward

Disappointing as yesterday’s outing was, it could lay the foundation for the rest of the season. The weak points surfaced under duress, in much the same way as you test for leaks in a pipe by putting it under pressure. And what better way to apply pressure than to play the Tamaraws, one of the most experienced teams with a very good core, a team just itching to bury memories of being swept last year in the finals. So the weak points were exposed, and there are many. The coaches know what to patch up, and what to reinforce.

You cannot simulate the UAAP environment by playing in the pre-season tournaments, and no amount of training will approximate the atmosphere, the noise, the tension of an actual UAAP game. So now it’s the real thing for the Archers after having been away from it for so many months. Let’s see how they apply the training they received.

Next up – defending champion Ateneo. The Blue Eagles blanked Adamson in the last 7 minutes of the game to nail that come-from-behind victory. They have 7-foot rookie Slaughter, who dumped 23 points on Adamson in his first game. And phenom Kiefer Ravena, who will be anxious to prove himself after laying an egg in his UAAP debut.

Will the Archer game make its appearance? Or will this be a repeat of yesterday’s “lost” game? I think we’ll see some embarrassed Archers aching to prove themselves against the Blue Eagles. No predictions for Saturday. But maybe they’ll surprise us by bringing the game we know they have.

At least there’s no more pressure to sweep the season. That’s a load of our team’s collective backs. But a 13-1 record sure would look good. Heck, I’ll settle for 12-2. Or 11-3. Would you believe 10-4?