Posted Aug 6th 2014
FEU Tamaraws: Moving forward
By Anthony Divinagracia Posted Jul 11th 2014
Nash Racela preferred to sit down.
“Merienda, coach?” one of the ball boys asked.
Couching his back on the round table beside him, Racela replied: “Ok na ako. ‘Yung mga bata na lang.”
On a regular afternoon, the FEU mentor won’t be seen hanging around the R. Papa gym’s famed Tam-bayan sports bar.
But there he was, smiling and greeting everyone, like the place’s in-house manager and receptionist. He had a special guest in RR Garcia, who dropped by to personally bid the team good luck.
“Ok na kayo?”
“Yes coach,” Chester Tolomia answered in a snap.
“O, bakit ka nakayuko? Look up. Look up!” Racela cheerfully ribbed Raymar Jose as the 6-foot-4 banger made his way inside to join the others who are already partaking on their 5 p.m. dinner.
“May tune-up game kasi kami mamayang 7 p.m. kaya pinakain na namin sila. Nagutom din yata sila sa pep rally kanina,” the second-year FEU drill master explained two hours before they slug it out with Asean Basketball League’s Malaysia Dragons at the Ynares Sports Complex in Pasig.
For Racela, tune-up games, pocket tournaments and workouts inside FEU-Diliman’s state-of-the-art training enclave defined the off-season build-up of a team suddenly orphaned by Garcia and Season 76 MVP Terrence Romeo.
Despite their much ballyhooed rift and rivalry, Garcia and Romeo are one of the best guard combinations the UAAP – and FEU – has ever produced.
“They are our heart and soul last season, no question about it,” Racela said.
Yet times have changed. Another season to play. Another story to write – minus Garcia and Romeo.
No fairy-tale ending
Obviously, the fairy tale ending to FEU’s love affair with Racela at the sidelines did not happen. In Racela’s maiden year, the Tamaraws swept the first round with Romeo going on a devastating scoring tear. But that shocking overtime loss to eventual champion De La Salle University in the second round snuffed FEU’s momentum.
It was all downhill from there on as losses began piling up for the Tamaraws, who earned the misfortune of facing the then-peaking Archers in the Final Four. But all was never lost for Racela.
“The target really last year was to make it to the Final Four. In the previous year di kami nag-Final Four. That was our modest goal. This year that’s the initial target,” he said.
That “modest goal” eloped with irony in numbers.
Last season, the Tamaraws ruled the charts with a plethora of firsts – number one in scoring (78.3 points per game), three-point shooting (27.5 per game), freethrows (70.7 per game), perimeter points (35.1 per game), fastbreak points (11.3 per game), turnover points (13.8 per game), assists (15.4 per game), and even fouls (23.1 per game). More so, FEU was second in blocks (4.3 per game).
All these greatly made up for their 13.9 turnovers an outing, the second highest in Season 76 next to perennial cellar-dweller University of the Philippines.
Scoring-wise, Romeo proved to be FEU’s top gun, averaging 21.7 points a contest. The fourth-year hotshot, who forego his last year of eligibility for the PBA, hit fadeaway jumpers with lethal accuracy. His dare-devil drives and quick-stop three-point were unforgiving as well.
However, only few had recognized Romeo’s other vastly improved skill – passing. Often labelled a “ball-hog”, FEU’s scoring dynamo actually got his teammates more involved last year with his 3.9 assists per game.
Garcia, the second leading point-getter for FEU (12.8 ppg), mostly did the quarterbacking chores with 3.1 dishes an outing. Both guards are equally reliable off the boards, combining for nine rebounds a contest.
With the Romeo-Garcia connection already gone, the mantle of leadership – and everything in between – will now reside on veterans Mark Belo, Mike Tolomia, and Roger Pogoy.
Belo, a member of the Gilas cadet pool, was FEU’s most reliable big man last season, norming 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game in 21 minutes of play. Tolomia on the other hand chalked up the same scoring average and was the Tamaraws’ best rebounding guard with 4.5 caroms on top of 3.5 assists an outing in 24 minutes of action.
Pogoy for his part was FEU’s energy guy, providing impact scoring with his slashing moves to the hole with averages of 6.3 points and 6.1 rebounds.
“We’re still relying on the core. Belo, Tolomia, Pogoy, (Carl) Cruz, (Anthony) Hargrove, (Russel) Escoto, (Axel) Inigo – these are the veterans that we think would be keys this year, but they won’t be effective kung walang bench support,” Racela said.
Wanted: Reliable bench
Cruz and Hargrove stood by FEU’s inside fences against opposing bigs despite just playing for nearly 20 minutes together. But their rebounding were subpar with Hargrove just plucking 4.2 boards and Cruz only 3.5 caroms in average. Offensively, the two contributed sparingly, conspiring for just 12 points a game.
FEU’s other big man, Cameroonian import Christian Sentcheu, remained a non-factor in his last playing year while Jose played spent most of his time at the end of the bench.
Good thing, Escoto is back on the Tamaraws’ roster after suffering an ACL injury prior to the start of Season 76.
“He (Escoto) is not yet 100 percent, but he’s getting there,” Racela said of the 6-foot-5 center who stands to provide FEU with additional muscle underneath.
Minus Escoto, the Tamaraws placed fourth in rebounding (46.3 rpg) and fifth in inside scoring (31.1 ppg).
Joining the comebacking Escoto in the FEU roster are second-year players Jeson Delfinado, Ron Dennison, and Joel Lee Yu.
Escoto’s younger brother Richard, who will compete in the FIBA Under-17 World Championship and the FIBA-Asia Under-18 Championship in August, lead the Tamaraws’ rookie class with Francis Tamsi, Augus Denila, and Reeve Ugsang.
“We hope the young ones will step up so that we can have more stability in terms of bench scoring,” Racela said.
Having available fresh legs for 40 minutes or so will be key to the Tamaraws’ patented running game.
“Ever since we just wanted to make sure that we are a running team. Yung mga bata they like to run. We just want to capitalize on that. Hopefully this year mas maganda ang takbo naming.”
Among those Racela expects to orchestrate FEU’s transition attack are Tolomio, Pogoy, Inigo, Belo, and Hargrove.
Racela also emphasized the need for more ball movement, especially in their halfcourt sets.
“Last year we we’re easily defended kasi the ball is concentrated on one or two players. The moment we achieve better ball movement it will be hard to defend us.”
And how about the Tamaraws’ defense?
“It’s inexcusable not to play defense for anyone (in the team), from defending in the perimeter, the interior, and in transition we have to always show our A-game. We cannot live on offense alone,” said Racela, whose wards gave up 75.2 points a game last season.
Teamwork and hardwork
FEU joined one major pre-season tournament in Metro Manila – the Fil-Oil Cup – where they were ousted yet again by La Salle in the knockout quarterfinals after sweeping the eliminations.
“We also competed in a pocket tournament in Cebu last May,” said Racela, referring to the Mayor Elanito Pena Invitational in Minglanilla town.
The Tamaraws won the tournament after beating CESAFI heavyweight Southwestern University in the Finals.
Yet despite gaining more experience in the pre-season, the veteran-spiced Tamaraws’ campaign won’t be a walk in the park, with La Salle looming as the team to beat.
“I think La Salle’s line-up this year is a lot stronger,” Racela said. “They will be one of the favorites.”
Two-time runner-up University of Santo Tomas and former five-peat champion Ateneo de Manila University belong to the same list “because of their winning programs.” University of the East and National University are also on Racela’s radar with both teams fielding two imports each.
“The only way to beat them is to play as a team. If we help each other then we have a better chance,” Racela said. “Last year was just the period of laying down the rules. Now we want to move forward with the program, with a better team.”
Racela still preferred to sit down. But now he is looking up.