Being tagged as “underdogs” in the 92nd NCAA seniors basketball tournament is the least of new Letran coach Jeff Napa’s concerns.
After all, the Knights, even with an all-Filipino line-up, have proven what they are capable of doing last year when they completed one of the most compelling title runs in collegiate history at the expense of dethroned ‘five-peat’ champion San Beda Red Lions.
And even without Finals MVP Mark Cruz and versatile wingman Kevin Racal who have both graduated, Napa believes the Knights remain a genuine force to be reckoned with in their title defense that officially starts on June 25 at the Mall of Asia Arena, with the Red Lions initially standing on their way.
“Hanggat maaari, hindi ko sa kanila pinaparamdam ‘yung pressure. Pinapa-enjoy ko lang sa kanila ‘yung laro at mina-maximize ko ‘yung mga talents nila para lumabas ‘yung pinakalaro nila,” Napa, 35, told FOX Sports on Thursday following Letran’s 61-65 loss to reigning UAAP titlist Far Eastern U in their tuneup match at the Tamaraws’ Morayta-based gym.
While he admitted filling in the big shoes of Cruz and Racal won’t be an easy task, Napa sounded confident that the Knights still have what it takes with the presence of vastly-improving wingman Rey Nambatac, steady guard McJour Luib, solid big men Jom Sollano, Bong Quinto and Felix Apreku and sophomore Jerick Ballanza.
“Right now, ang ginagawa namin collective effort para mapunan ‘yung pagkawala nu’ng dalawa,” he pointed out.
“Kaya masasabi kong underdog kami ngayon dahil yung mga ibang kalaban namin, talagang nag-beef up. Pero andun pa rin naman kami sa scenario na lalaban pa rin kami.”
Barely four months in charge since he took over the reins left by Aldin Ayo who’s now calling the shots for UAAP powerhouse La Salle, Napa is starting to see and appreciate how the Knights have been making a steady progress.
“Happy kami sa nagiging result pero ako hindi pa ganun ka-satisfied kasi mayroon pa rin akong hinahanap sa kanila na alam kong mailalabas nila,” he said. “Ang hinahanap namin ang commitment sa bawat isa at commitment for our school. Bago ang lahat, ‘yun dapat ang ma-establish namin para magawa namin kung ano ‘yung gusto naming gawin.”
Considered as one of the most successful coaches in the juniors division, having led National U-Nazareth School to the Promised Land in three of the last five UAAP tourneys, Napa is hoping that could help him blend well with Letran’s winning tradition.
“‘Yung experience ko in coaching then ‘yung winning tradition naman ng Letran, kapag pinagsasama-sama, hopefully maging maganda ang resulta at may positibong kalabasan ang mga efforts namin,” he said.
Napa is also setting a modest—yet realistic—goal for the Knights. “Manalo, ‘yun lang muna. Tsaka na namin iisipin kung hanggang saan kami pwede makarating. Step by step lang,” he said.
Like his counterparts, Jerry Codiñera of Arellano U and Jose Rizal U’s Vergel Meneses, Napa is also expecting a wide open race.
“Ang pinaka-contenders ngayon Mapua, Arellano, San Beda, Perpetual. Pero actually lahat naman,” he said. “Hindi ko naman para i-take for granted ‘yung iba. Lahat naman nagpe-prepara, depende na lang sa sitwasyon ng laro. Kaya importante talaga na mag-trabaho talaga kami.” – By Jerome Lagunzad
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