NCAA:  WEDNESDAY  BLOCKBUSTER

MANILA, July 25, 2005 
(STAR) THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco - Wednesday makrs the official end of the first round of the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But it will also be the first time this season that the two remaining undefeated teams in the league will meet head-on.

The defending champion Philippine Christian University Dolphins and former champion Letran Knights both carry 6-win, 0-loss cards, and have yet to face each other in the double-round robin eliminations. Both have been unanimously picked by both teams to make it to the finals.

The reason experts fancy the Dolphins is that they are, fortunately for them, intact from last season. Ironically, the only one absent from the team is the man who took them to their first title: head coach Ato Tolentino. Tolentino left the team after a disagreement with management. In his stead is Junel Baculi, a former Mapua Cardinal who has won championships coaching in the ABC (now FIBA-Asia) Champion’s Cup and the Philippine Basketball League. Baculi has added teeth to a tepid defense that maximizes the Dolphins’s athletic ability.

PCU has a lot of material to work with. First of all, 2004 Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Gabby Espinas is only a sophomore, and has a season of PBL experience under his belt. Espinas has been averaging in double figures in points and rebounds, something only two other players in the league have been able to do thus far. The 6’5" center is particulary effective outjumping opponents off the offensive glass.

Graduating Finals MVP Rob Sanz is another big factor in the Dolphin run for a repeat. The 6’3" forward plugs a lot of positions on offense, and has discovered a latent talent for defending the best athletes on other teams. Plus, Sanz is there to hit the big shot when they need it. The champs also have a deep rotation of big men, beginning with 6’5" forward-center Beau Belga, and ending with 6’5" frontliner Yenz Salangsang. The backcourt, although lacking in size, is deep in experience, with graduating Ramon Retaga starting at the point.

The Letran Knights, meanwhile, have only one major change this year, and that is the absence of top scorer Ronjay Enrile. The do-it-all shooter, who still has eligibility remaining, opted not to join the team this year supposedly to concentrate on his studies, although it may be closer to the truth to surmise that he clashed with teammates. Nevertheless, Louie Alas still has the core from their championship team of two years ago intact.

Aaron Aban is the leading scorer of Letran now, and one of the league’s three top point producers. The 6’2" guard-forward has an effective baseline jumper, a strong penetration, and rebounds well from his position. He is aided in the backcourt by senior point guard Boyet Bautista, a high school phenom who is now getting more looks at the basket with the departure of Enrile. Bautista, like his bigger teammates, has tremendous range, and the confidence to drive against much bigger defenders.

The Knights have the flexibility to put in a big line-up and create mismatches. Veterans Jonathan Piñera and Jonathan Aldave can play anything from shooting guard to center, and the bench has a quite a few big men who can fill in when needed.

The big weapon for Louie Alas, though, is 6’7" Mark Andaya. Big Mac, as the team calls him, is another player averaging a double-double, and has not even gotten major minutes yet. What is surprising and quite refreashing is Andaya’s ability to pass from the post, reminiscent of centers of another era. PBL experience and a few more pounds of muscle have also made Andaya more effective in the post, although he is more known as a finesse player.

Who will have the advantage? In the frontcourt, PCU is definitely more athletic up top, with Espinas, and Belga proving they can run. In the backcourt, the Knights’ flexibility and size will be an ace to play. Another advantage for Letran is that they have been playing the same system for years, while PCU is still learning Baculi’s way. In fact, four of the Dolphins were playing in the PBL and practicing with the PBL RP pool, keeping them from being with their mother team until close to the start of the season.

But, when it comes down to it, you can throw the stats out the window. The Knights have a very effective halfcourt game, while the Dolphins are great at crashing the boards and in transition. Expect a physical game, with a lot of outside shooting. And when the dust settles at the Cuneta Astrodome, only one team will be standing with a spotless record.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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