Those are two words that the Mapua Cardinals senior men’s basketball team can add to their repertoire coming into the 94th season of the NCAA. While they languished at the bottom of the Season 93 standing with a 3-15 record, they had six losses with margins of six points or less including their 96-90 opening day defeat against the eventual runner-up and elimination round sweepers Lyceum Pirates.
Even two of their three wins have been close fights. They defeated the Perpetual Altas by five points, 76-71, in the first round before edging Letran, 78-75, in their 11th game. Their most impressive victory is a 79-69 beating of the College of St. Benilde Blazers. While you can credit the dismal season to the departure of two-time NCAA MVP Alwell Oraeme, the likes of Andoy Estrella, Hesed Gabo, Christian Buñag, and Laurenz Victoria carried the torch for the Intramuros-based ballers.
Sad to say, Estrella and Gabo will not suit up for Mapua anymore. As two of the team’s leading scorers, the Cardinals will have to compensate for their 23.92 combined scoring average per game come NCAA Season 94. Also bidding farewell are Kim Magboo, JB Raflores, Almel Orquina, and Marvin Jomenes. Meanwhile, reigning NCAA Skills Challenge champion JP Nieles has been placed in the reserve list.
Holdovers and additions
Despite losing quality players, there is still much reason for the Cardinals to be optimistic for the coming NCAA tournament. Buñag will do a yeoman’s job of being the leading scorer and rim protector on defense as he tries to improve from his Season 93 per-game averages of 11.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks. He will get much support from former Mapua Red Robin Victoria who will now be their main orchestrator.
Other players who made the smooth transition from the juniors to seniors ranks of Mapua basketball are former Lyceum player Noah Lugo, Jasper Salenga, and Justin Serrano. Taking the same path are Joaqui Garcia and Eric James Jabel. But perhaps their biggest acquisition from the Red Robins is the heavily-recruited Warren Bonifacio who was part of the NCAA Juniors Mythical Five last season. While he will be a nice back-up to Buñag, Co can also explore a twin tower rotation with them playing at once.
Though they have a budding front court combo in Buñag and Bonifacio, expect the Cardinals to use the fastbreak as the focal point of their offense. Meanwhile, they will employ a variety of trap plays and zone coverages on defense. Co will devise strategies in spreading the floor around his two talented big men. This will free up their shooters to drill open shots or for their slashers to penetrate to the hoop.
Still, you can’t expect much from their young squad. They will make modest strides as the season progresses but their inexperience might cause them to melt down in close end-game situations. But with the upgrade of talent that they received especially from their former juniors players plus the valuable experience of Victoria and Buñag, expect the Mapua Cardinals to win four to six games in NCAA Season 94.