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FEU seeks Final Four return with new coach

By Anthony Divinagracia Posted Jun 24th 2013

RR Garcia and the rest of the FEU Tamaraws hope to make a return trip to the Final Four this season after missing it in 2012.

Under the goal and behind the halfcourt line, Nash Racela routinely stood – and stooped – with prying eyes.

Like a pendulum, Far Eastern University’s (FEU) new mentor restlessly swung from one drill cone to another. But his sight remained fixed on a mash-up of green and gold as Terrence Romeo dusted everyone and stretched for a lay-in.

And RR Garcia?

He stretched himself too – on the sidelines.

“R, saan masakit?”, asks the team therapist. “Na-sprain ka yata pre.”

Sure, Racela is concerned. Yet optimism kept him posted under the goal.

“Babalik ‘yan,” he exclaims.

In a jiffy, Garcia – hobbling and all – sprinted back to practice.

“Upo muna ‘yung group ni Terrence,” assistant coach Eric Gonzales barks out.

With Romeo in the freezer, Garcia began heating up – scoring and orchestrating just like the good old times.

Reintroduced to the floor, Romeo immediately pulled up a jumper off his killer crossover.

But Racela was hardly impressed.

“We always say FEU really needs to learn how to play as one team. This is a team of very talented players but they are too individualistic,” he says, underscoring the Tamaraws’ long-drawn open secret.

Frankly enough, Racela has no business keeping this “secret” clipped on his playbook when the Tamaraws do battle in Season 76.

“(Individual talent) can bring you to a certain level. But it can't bring you all the way to the Promised Land, to the championship. Alam ng bawat isa ‘yan sa amin.”

Case in point: their make-or-break games last season.

Garcia drew cheers for sinking a last-gasp lay-up that pushed FEU to a wild 77-75 victory over National University (NU) in the second round. But the outcome was later nullified and a rematch was set. FEU lost as both Garcia and Romeo disconnected themselves from the Tamaraws in the crucial moments, throwing bricks on all fours.

Enlisting hindsight, pundits blamed the 2010 UAAP MVP for not dishing off to a streaking Anthony Hargrove near the goal with two ticks left in their aborted win over NU. It was all downhill from there, noted former FEU coach Bert Flores, as the Tamaraws yielded the last Final Four berth to De La Salle University after losing in a playoff.

“The biggest challenge for us really is how to make this team play as a group. A team can have a go-to-guy of sorts. But that go-to-guy should not always look forward to just scoring. He should also do wonders even without the ball,” Racela said. “The good thing is we're conscious about it. It's out in the open. We’re talking about it and addressing it now.”

Notably last season, the Tamaraws were second in turnovers (14.4 per game), sixth in assists (13.7 per game), and seventh in freethrow shooting (60.1 percent).

Yet limiting turnovers, moving the ball to share the offensive wealth, and nailing charities are just half of the puzzle.

“Team defense! Team defense! Magtulungan kayo,” Gonzales yells as the Tamaraws rehearsed their transition and halfcourt defensive sets.

Once in a while, Racela breaks the routine to explain “why we are doing this”, packed with a little backstory.

“Guys, first quarter kahapon 11 fouls agad tayo. Kada sundot laging may foul. We won’t last the game if we don’t play honest team defense.”


Culture change

Teamwork aside, Racela sees another formidable weapon at the Tamaraws’ disposal.

“We should really take advantage of our quickness. We have good guards who can run the break. But then again it’s nothing if we don't involve everyone in the team.”

FEU’s quickness predicated on its guards though may not be enough to shore up its thin frontline with the departure of Arvie and Mark Bringas, John Foronda, and Russel Escoto, who suffered an ACL injury in the PBA D-League.

“Basically those who came in are not that big and are more used to playing in the perimeter. So, we're gonna rely on players who didn't actually see action last year,” Racela says, referring to 6’11” Cameroonian reserve Christian Sentcheu and forward Raymar Jose.

“Our height problems should be covered up by the others. Everyone should step up.”

Garcia and Romeo will again banner the Tamaraws alongside returnees Roger Pogoy, Mike Tolomia, Carl Cruz, Gryann Mendoza, Mark Bello, Sentcheu, Jose, and Hargrove among others. Making up FEU’s rookie class this season are former Baby Tams Joshua Aguilon, Jeson Delfinado, and Joel Lee-Yu, Iloilo standout Josh Denila, and Team B recruits Jovani Luz and Ron Marvis Dennison.

Racela has also beefed up his coaching staff, tapping Gilas Pilipinas assistant Josh Reyes, and Talk n’ Text forward Gilbert Lao to join holdovers Johnny Abbarientos and Johnny de Guia in the sidelines.

More than calling the shots, Racela looks to install a “culture change” among the Tamaraws this season.

“I want them to break the old habits. In may come simply as following the rules like not going out of the dorm in the wee hours of the night.

“It’s a culture change not only on the court but more so outside of it. Once you improve on that, it will show on the basketball court.”

Defending five-peat champion Ateneo de Manila University remains high on the list of teams to beat for the rebuilding Tamaraws. 

“They may be smaller this season but they're already a team. The culture that coach Norman (Black) has left is already in place. All coach Bo (Perasol) should do is coach. Wala kang masyadong kailangang baguhin.  All you have to do is introduce your system tapos tatakbo na yan.”

NU has better players surrounding two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks, notably a dominant import in Alfred Aroga who can play solid ball for 40 minutes, Racela says.

FEU is also in the lookout for La Salle and Adamson which shored up their rosters, as well as University of the East for winning the Filoil tournament, and Season 75 runner-up University of Santo Tomas “because of its experience.”

Prior to the season, six of the Tamaraws suited up for Fruitas Shakers in the D-League under Racela. The Tamaraws also joined the Filoil and won a pocket tournament in Cebu.

Despite a relatively short pre-season build up, the new FEU tactician made one thing clear.

“We will win as much as we can and hopefully make it to the Final Four and we'll see from thereon. Once you’re in, ibang usapan na yun. We're after the improvement as we went along. It’s a work in progress.

"Ang mahalaga may nababago kahit pakonti-konti,” he says. “We're happy with the progress although it’s kind of slow.

“But I think we're geared towards the right direction.”

And definitely for Racela, it’s not under the goal.


UAAP Season 76 Lineup:

Aguilon, Joshua Dave
Belo, Rey Mark
Cruz, Carl Bryan
Delfinado, Jeson
Denila, Augus Vince
Dennison, Ron Marvis
Garcia, Ryan Roose
Hargrove, Anthony Jr.
Iňigo, Alejandrino Antonio Jr.
Jose, Raymar
Lee Yu, Joel Christian
Luz, Jovanie Jr.
Mendoza, Gryann
Pogoy, Roger Ray
Romeo, Terrence Bill
Sentcheu, Christian
Tolomia, Cris Michael