MANILA, July 10, 2005 
(STAR) By Dante Navarro - Amid the political uncertainty, the 68th UAAP season unfolds today at the Araneta Coliseum.

And from the looks of things, two teams are expected to hog the spotlight again, the first trying to sustain its startling, if successful campaign last year when it scrambled to reach the Final Four, humbled its archrival in two games to make the finals and then repulsed the most fancied team in the fold to win the title. The other is raring to get back at its tormentor and get another stab at the most prestigious crown in collegiate leagues.

The six others? Well, one actually has got what it takes to make it all the way to the championship and another has the spunk to move it past the eliminations and spoil the big guns’ party but that would hinge on many factors, including determination, poise and coaching.

Darkhorse University of the Philippines and Santo Tomas kick off the new season as they clash in the 2 p.m. opener after the 1 p.m. opening rites. The other seniors match pits favorite Far Eastern U against University of the East at 4 p.m.

But before the games begin, the league and its legions of fans will offer a moment of prayer and silence for former National University coach Sonny Paguia who passed away last Wednesday.

The 72-year-old Paguia, a well-loved pillar of the UAAP, died of colon cancer. Aside from riding the NU bench as team consultant, he was also a vocal member of the UAAP technical committee at the time of his death.

Four other teams will see action tomorrow with fierce rivals La Salle, the defending champion, and Ateneo facing each other in an early confrontation. The game is set at 4 p.m. also at the Big Dome.

With not much of materials to boast of or the proverbial experience to speak of, the other teams could just slug it out down the form chart and see which teams will survive the grueling phase of the elims or which squads will fight it out for the crumbs of a fifth-place finish.

But the only predictable thing in the country’s most prestigious collegiate league is its unpredictability, meaning no one could say straight up whether one team is better or superior to the other, especially with the buildup that these teams underwent during the off-season.

That should make this year’s playing field level doubly interesting despite the seeming gaps — talent-wise — in the respective rosters of the competing teams with the lowly-ranked squads, based on last year’s record, still given chances of pulling off a surprise or two even over the most talented team in the field.

Defending champion La Salle, despite the loss of two of its former star players, remains the team to beat although coach Franz Pumaren has opted to downplay his wards’ chances, saying they are on a rebuilding phase again, while 2003 titlist and last year’s losing finalist Far Eastern U, boasts of a solid roster and is out to challenge the Archers in their back-to-back title bid.

It will be tough, for sure, with tight competitions expected not only in men’s basketball but in all disciplines in the league. And this early, hotly-contested has become an apt description prior to the competitions with host Adamson putting premium on the student-athletes in the current year through the theme SOAR Higher with SOAR standing for "See Our Athletes Rise Higher."

No less than new commissioner Joe Lipa, the former national and PBA coach, assured the highly-competitive level of this year’s hostilities, saying: "We all know that the UAAP is always known for its very exciting games especially this year because I see improvements in all teams."

La Salle needed two victories over Ateneo in the Final Four last year to arrange a title showdown with FEU, which it outfought in sudden death. But without Marc Cardona and Jerwin Gaco, it feels it is starting all over again and quickly points to FEU as the team to beat.

Without Cardona, veteran Joseph Yeo should assume the role of the take-charge guy along with Tyrone Tang and Jun Jun Cabatu, who, according to Pumaren, must step up and provide the leadership for the younger players.

Like most of his counterparts, Pumaren picks Far Eastern U as the team to beat this year although he said it could have been the other way around had Cardona chose to stay for one more year and Gaco had one more season to play.

"We can’t be favorites. Kung andiyan pa sana si Mac at Jerwin, pwede pa siguro," said Pumaren. "FEU is the team to beat because it has strong, veteran players."

Truly, with main man Arwind Santos opting to stay for one more year, the Tams indeed look formidable, if not unbeatable and their victories in the Champions’ League and just recently, in the Fr. Martin’s Cup only underscored their readiness to take on the contenders as well as the pretenders.

Ateneo and University of the East finished third and fourth, respectively but the exodus of their star players — Larry Fonacier for Ateneo and UE’s Nino Canaleta and RJ Masbang — could change things drastically for the Eagles and the Warriors. But experts maintain they’ve got what it takes to make it to the Final Four again this year. — With report from Abac Cordero

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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