Posted Feb 16th 2014
Delayed flight for Ateneo
By Josiah Albelda Posted Aug 12th 2013
As much as people believed Ateneo de Manila University will be able to contend for the crown this season, many of them knew that it would be a hard climb for the five-peat champions.
Losing key players such as Greg Slaughter and Nico Salva definitely hurt, as the Blue Eagles were left to be a doughnut team with no one reliable enough to patrol the shaded lane.
JP Erram is promising, but he's coming off an ACL injury that really takes long to recover from. Frank Golla is experienced, but his skill level is way off what Salva brought to the fore. The rest of Ateneo's big man corps are, well, untested and would definitely have a hard time banging bodies against the Africans of other teams.
So when the season began, expectations on how the Blue Eagles will perform were tempered.
Nobody foresaw, though, that the proud Blue and White will falter to a 0-3 start.
Superstar guard Kiefer Ravena, who was tipped to lead Ateneo's attack by himself in Season 76, injured his ankle less than a week before the tournament fired off, setting into motion a title defense campaign that has gone awry so far.
Ravena tried to play through pain in their first game, but lasted all of eight minutes before calling it a day. His play didn't help the Blue Eagles, who fell to a 64-54 shellacking from National University.
The Phenom missed the next two games after that as whispers around the league grew louder that he aggravated what was actually a Grade 3 ankle sprain when he suited up against the Bulldogs.
Ravena was quick to counter that.
"Wala nga akong ginawa masyado nun so how can I aggravate it?" he told this writer. "It's just that my injury was bad to begin with. It was really bad."
However, heroes rose up in Ravena's absence.
Ryan Buenafe toyed with Far Eastern University's defense to plaster the Tamaraws with 29 points and 15 rebounds. Still, it wasn't enough for Ateneo to win.
Chris Newsome shone bright in his first Ateneo-La Salle game with 27 points. Still, it wasn't enough for the Blue Eagles to win.
Finally, against Adamson University, the Katipunan-based squad broke its spell, getting contributions from virtually everyone as they trumped the Soaring Falcons, 71-59.
Erram starred in that win, together with Juami Tiongson and Buenafe, who almost had a triple-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
The jinx over, Ateneo looked to be gathering steam and has won three of their last four games -- including an impressive win over University of Santo Tomas to close their first round campaign with a 3-4 record.
Lot of work to be done
But coming into the second round, the Blue Eagles have a lot of work to do -- especially on offense -- to resuscitate their bid for a sixth straight crown.
That could be answered when Ravena, who's averaging just 9.0 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists (compared to last year's 16.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists), returns to full health.
Until then, though, Ateneo has to work on pounding the paint for baskets. They currently sit last at points in the paint with just 26.6 markers per game while also being unavailable to salvage plays with only 5.3 second-chance points per outing.
Their rebounding leaves little to be desired (43.7 per, 7th) while their shooting has gone terribly bad (35.6%, 7th) -- a far cry from the days when Norman Black strode the sidelines for the Loyola crew.
The bench has to contribute, too, for the Blue Eagles to make their mark, as they have ranked seventh with a measly 17.4 points per game output from their reserves. To show the contrast, league-leading FEU gets 29.4 points from their bench.
Interestingly, even with all their shortcomings, Ateneo remains in serious contention for a Final Four spot as only one game separates six teams juggling for semifinal seats.
Expect Ravena to rev up as the season wears on while Buenafe, Tiongson and Newsome continue to bring in the goods. Erram, Pessumal, Nico Elorde and even Golla will have their chance to shine, too, as the Blue Eagles make a play for even a top-two spot.
After all, the core of this team has won title after title. And like they have shown in the past, you can never count Ateneo out.