Already hard-pressed to fill up the big void left by six vital cogs, led by their prized ‘Big 3’ of Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia and Roger Pogoy, defending champion Far Eastern U will have to deal with an inevitable pressure of having to carry a big bull’s eye target on its back in the UAAP Season 79 men’s basketball tournament.
That explains why fourth-year coach Nash Racela is doing a conscious effort to help ease the load off the Tamaraws’ shoulders.
“To tell you honestly, we never talk about defending the championship,” he said in a recent interview. “We just want to focus on our improvements, try to win ballgames, and hopefully get to the playoffs. Kapag ganu’n na nagagawa namin, then maybe we can start talking about that.”
After winning the school’s 20th men’s cage title last year—its first since 2005—over University of Santo Tomas, the Tamaraws are basically starting from scratch following the loss of Belo, Tolomia, Pogoy, Russel Escoto, Alfrancis Tamsi and Achie Iñigo who have all maximized their playing eligibility.
While most of their rivals, notably powerhouse La Salle and 2015 champion National U, have reloaded and are considered as their top title threats, Racela doesn’t mind even if FEU is flying under the radar.
“I think FEU has always been like that, at least in the last couple of years. And personally I like that,” he said. “Ayaw ko na lagi kaming pinag-uusapan. If other people really enjoy the limelight, that’s them. Kami okay na ganito lang, na tahimik lang. We just let our performance speak for ourselves.”
Tipped to lead FEU’s title-retention bid is graduating center Raymar Jose, the team’s designated skipper, with holdovers Richard Escoto, Cameroonian Prince Orizu, Monbert Arong, Ron Dennison, Ken Holmqvist, Barkley Ebona and Jojo Trinidad providing the needed support.
The Tamaraws will also parade a pair of rookies in Fil-Kiwis Joseph Nunag and Kenneth Tuffin, the team’s co-captain, plus former Adamson guard Axel Iñigo, the younger brother of Achie.
Racela added he sees no problem on who will provide the leadership for a young Tamaraws lineup.
“We encourage collective leadership in FEU,” he said.
Racela also sounded pleased with what he’s seeing from the Tamaraws, notably their frontline.
“Continuous improvement. They’ve been working hard under (assistant) coach Gilbert Lao. Masaya kami sa improvements na nakikita namin sa kanila. Wala pa dun sa level na gusto namin but we’re really confident na mararating nila ‘yung gusto namin,” he said.
FEU starts its title-retention bid against La Salle, bannered by highly-touted Cameroon import Ben Mbala, in what promises to be a fiery encounter on Wednesday and Racela doesn’t mind if they’re coming in as the perceived underdogs.
“Ang belief ko naman, life is about respecting people. Ako I will give them respect. I guess everybody’s going to do the same,” he said.
Aside from the souped-up Green Archers, Racela also considers the Bulldogs as legit title contenders.
“NU will be tough this year. Tingin ko last year they really struggled because having to lose some of their players (like Troy Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin). Maganda ‘yung tinatakbo nila. I think they’re gonna be competitive this year,” he said. – By Jerome Lagunzad
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