From friend to foes. Coach Nash Racela and former Far Eastern U star Mac Belo will find themselves on the opposite sides of the Smart-Araneta Coliseum court on Friday when powerhouse TNT squares off with pace-setting Blackwater in the 2017 PBA Philippine Cup.
Still licking the wounds of a failed title-retention bid by Far Eastern U in the UAAP Season 79 tourney, Racela will open a new chapter on his coaching career with the KaTropa who will try to foil the 6-foot-4 Belo and the upstart Elite in what promises to be a blockbuster encounter at 4:15 p.m.
For sure, an ample share of the spotlight will fall on TNT top guard Jayson Castro, who will make his much-awaited debut after missing the KaTropa’s first two matches—which they split—as he was given an extended period of rest and recovery.
However, much of the focus will be given to Racela and Belo, who teamed up in leading the Tamaraws to their first UAAP title in a decade over the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers last year.
This time, they will be standing on the different sides of the fence, with Belo out to sustain the Elite’s best start in franchise history to three matches and Racela taking over the KaTropa coaching reins—which top deputy Josh Reyes handled well—on a full-time basis.
“Coming from the same program, masaya ako for him,” Racela, in a phone interview with FOX Sports, said of Belo, who was named as the Finals MVP in the Tamaraws’ title conquest.
Racela’s familiarity with Belo’s style of play should come in handy for the KaTropa, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier said than done.
“He’s been playing really well and I think he’s a game changer for Blackwater,” said Racela of the prized Elite rookie, who is good for 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game so far.
“He’s a different player from the last time we have him. Mas complete package na siya ngayon. Kailagan talaga namin siyang paghandaan because Mac has been really playing well.”
Having activated the 5-foot-8 Castro in lieu of injured guard Alex Nuyles should ease some of Racela’s concerns.
And the way the KaTropa flashed their offensive firepower in their come-from-behind 108-103 victory over crowd favorite Barangay Ginebra over the weekend should be another encouraging sign.
“Based on the previous conferences, we really depended on Jayson a lot. But that is something that we’re tying to correct—not to be depending much on just one or two players,” said Racela, visibly impressed with how seven TNT cagers, led by veteran Ranidel De Ocampo’s 22 points, scored in double figures against Ginebra.
“Actually it was good that Josh handled the team well the past few games and natututo kami to play as a whole team. We also learned how to play without Jayson and I feel that it can help us a lot in the future,” said Racela.
Aside from Belo, the KaTropa also must find ways to slow down the Elite’s solid supporting cast led by veteran Denok Miranda, Kyle Pascual and Art Dela Cruz who have all been averaging at least 10 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
Racela is clearly aware of how tough the task at hand is. “‘Yung buong team ang kailangan paghandaan kasi the way they run the system of coach Leo, it’s more of a free-wheeling offense and ball-sharing. Hindi kami pwede magfocus sa iisang player. We need to cover a lot,” he stressed. – Jerome Lagunzad
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