Confident he now has enough tools to contend with the league’s heavyweights, University of the East coach Derrick Pumaren believes the Red Warriors are ready to make a return trip to the Final Four in the UAAP Season 79 men’s basketball tournament set to start on Sunday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
After coming up short of a semifinal appearance during his first two years at the helm, Pumaren feels he has instilled his system enough to the Red Warriors, who are considered by most of their rivals as the darkhorse in the eight-team field.
“I think the system has taken full effect among our players. We have learned to play better after the first two years and that will be a great factor for us,” Pumaren told FOX Sports in a phone interview on Friday afternoon after conducting the team’s practice.
While sophomore guard Bonbon Batiller is expected to take up the cudgels offensively, the Red Warriors boast a dangerous crew that also includes high-flying Renz Palma, veteran big men RR De Leon, Clark Derige, guard Philip Manalang and team captain Paul Varilla.
What gives Pumaren added reason to stay optimistic is the arrival of Davao native Alvin Pasaol and 6-foot-7 big man Rey Mark Acuno, a prized transferee from Southwestern University.
“We have an almost complete team compared to last year,” added Pumaren. “We have players who can play multiple positions in the system. That’s why I’m confident we will have a better performance this year.”
Tied with host University of Santo Tomas at second overall with 18 men’s cage titles, UE is hoping to snap a three-decade title drought since another Red Warriors squad, led by eventual pro league greats Allan Caidic and Jerry Codiñera, claimed the UAAP crown in 1985.
Pumaren, however, is not looking that far ahead, keeping his focus on steering the Red Warriors to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.
“I’m very positive that I can lead the team back to the semis. We’re one game short sa first season ko,” he said, referring to UE’s fifth-place finish in 2014 when it absorbed a painful 49-51 setback to eventual champion National U in their knockout match for the fourth and final semis spot.
The Red Warriors finished sixth overall last year with a 6-8 mark and Pumaren feels they cannot afford to have a slow start if they intend to realize their immediate goal.
“I think we just have to make our move early. Strong start ang kailangan namin so we can set the tone (for our campaign). Sa huli kasi kumikilos madalas,” he said.
Pumaren has the chance to get what he wanted on Wednesday when UE takes on National U, one of the top contenders, at the Mall of Asia Arena. – Jerome Lagunzad
Follow this writer on Twitter: @JLFoxSports