HOW NU GOT HERE
Sweet, scorching offense. The Bullpups are the highest scoring team in the league, recording 86.4 points per game and 96.15 points per 100 possessions. They’re also 1st in points in the paint (48 PPG) and 2nd in 3-pointers made (96). The crucial thing to note about this offense, however, is that this offense can come from anywhere at any given day. Despite boasting the best offense in the league, none of the NU Bullpups crack the Top 10 in scoring, which is mind-boggling in an 8-team league.
Their stellar offense is captained, mainly by Rhayyan Amsali and Terrence Fortea—a playmaking stretch four and a spitfire, lights-out shooter who could both be poster boys for modern, team basketball. Coach Goldwyn Monteverde has made it a point to stagger the minutes of his two stars, making sure to leave at least one on the floor at all times. The offense runs through them and they both have done terrific jobs in creating for others and keeping the defenses guessing.
Speaking of defense, their D is no slouch either, ranking 3rd in points allowed but more importantly 1st in forced turnovers and tied for 1st in steals. Defense leads to offense and it comes as no surprise that they lead the league in points off of turnovers, which could prove to be the lynch pin for their success in the Finals.
KEY QUESTION: Can NU’s Defense Hold On Long Enough To Withstand The Inevitable SJ Belangel Onslaught?
Looking at the rankings at the end of the season, this is the Finals we all deserved. Two immensely talented teams—the strongest offensive squad squaring off against the best defensive unit. The proverbial unstoppable force barreling toward the immovable object. The problem if you’re NU is that Ateneo has an unstoppable force of its own.
SJ Belangel may not be the season’s MVP, but he has proven to be the best player in the league. Ateneo is just so stacked that he doesn’t find the need to show it. He’s like an anime character with a power limiter—Son Goku with weighted clothes—with a flip of a switch, suddenly deciding to banish opponents to the shadow realm when the game becomes a little too interesting.
The Bullpups have had two opportunities to measure their defense against SJ. The first game was a lopsided disaster—NU’s offense failed to show up and they lost handily, 64-49.
The second face-off was a different story. One thing NU has on their side is their ability to force turnovers. Ateneo just happens to be the most turnover prone team in the league. By halftime, despite trailing 30-40, the Bullpups had successfully forced 16 turnovers, 3 of which were SJs. By the 4th quarter, Ateneo had coughed up a whopping 31 TOs, 9 belonging to the Eaglet’s star player, and the Bullpups had the lead. But then SJ did that thing he does where he becomes the best player on the floor and NU collapsed in the last two and a half minutes. 78-68. Eaglets.
In that loss though, was a blueprint for success, however temporary it may have been. The Bullpups discovered they could bully Sotto’s towering but lanky frame with heftier centers, resulting in the wunderkind’s benching in crucial stretches of the game. With Kai sidelined, defenses then hounded SJ with double teams, either forcing a turnover or Ildelfonso, Manuel, Cortea & Co. to be the ones to beat them. It worked long enough for the Bullpups to establish a four-point lead with three minutes left. We all know what happened next but considering Ateneo’s defense was enough to squeeze out shaky performances from Amsali and Fortea, if their defense holds while their league-leading offense shows up, we’ll have ourselves a ball game.
As mentioned earlier, one of NU’s key strengths is their bench depth. While Amsali and Fortea (the latter of whom I wrote about here) hold the keys to the offense, they have always had someone else to pass the ball to and carry the offensive load. Case in point in Tuesday’s playoff game against UST, it was starting center Paolo Javillonar who led the way for the Bullpups—netting 13 points and 16 rebounds, despite only averaging 5.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. He, Amsali, and back-up big Michael Malonzo are relentless offensive rebounders, combining for an imposing 10.1 offensive rebounds per game, and are the main reasons NU ranks 1st in second chance points (15.1 PPG).
Fortea is the league’s most consistent 3-point shooter, ranking 2nd in threes made and accuracy, but Miguel Oczon can hold his own against him, averaging 1.7 triples a game at a rate of 28.6%, good for 7th and 10th respectively. Oczon along with Matthew Manalang, round out the starting backcourt, and as Rhayyan Amsali’s running mates, it will be up to them to set the tone. Manalang is perhaps the most bulldog-esque among the Bullpups, reminiscent of Patrick Beverly, Marcus Smart, and other ballsy, hard-nosed point guards.
All season long, Coach Monteverde has managed his players’ minutes judiciously. Amsali logs in an average of 23.8 minutes a game, while Fortea plays 20.4. For contrast, MVP CJ Cansino tallies a back-breaking 34.5 minutes per game. Furthermore, in 14 games, Fortea has always come off the bench. Will Coach Monteverde look to punch the Eaglets in the mouth by trotting out his best line-up as his starting five? It’s the Finals baby!
Starting Fortea also slots the young guard at the 2, along with Manalang. As the captain of the bench, Terrence usually runs point due to his size and his crafty ball-handling. I like him so much more as a shooting guard though—he doesn’t drain energy unnecessarily by bringing down the ball and through full-court presses. Instead he can let Manalang and Amsali create, while Fortea accomplishes what he was born to do—catch and shoot.
Look to Javillonar, Malonzo, and even Amsali to bully Kai Sotto and get in his head. In their last meeting, the Atenean center picked up two offensive fouls out of frustration. Mismatches forced Coach Joe Silva to substitute him for Geo Chiu, which allowed the Bullpups to score in the paint with ease. Whether or not Kai can muster the physicality to manhandle the NU frontcourt will dictate Ateneo’s #1 ranked defense.
This is the 7th straight Finals berth for the Bullpups and potentially the 4th championship in that time frame. Win or lose, we’re all in for some heavyweight, anything-can-happen basketball. Buckle up.