How Ateneo got here:
After starting the season 13-0, Ateneo looked to be well on its way out of the championship race against the FEU Tamaraws. Facing a six point lead during the fourth quarter in their do-or-die, Ateneo looked lost in the search for an answer against the determined FEU. In final minutes of the game, four players shined the brightest: Thirdy Ravena, Chibueze Ikeh, Isaac Go and Matt Nieto.
Thanks to some solid, all-around dirty work by Ravena and Ikeh and the heroics of both Nieto and Go, the Blue Eagles managed to pull out the victory in an overtime classic versus a gritty Tamaraw team. They’re seen as underdogs now, a stark contrast to the “unbeaten” and “favorites” tag they had a few weeks bad. But if you ask the Blue Eagles if they’re happy that they made it to the Finals, they’ll be sure to answer with a resounding yes.
Key Question: How will Ateneo defend La Salle?
It’s easy to think Ateneo’s primary problem is still having a go-to-guy in the clutch, but Nieto and Ravena showed they’re more than willing to take the ball to the hole to get the basket when all else fails for Ateneo. They aren’t Kiefer-level clutch players just yet, but the lack of a go-to-guy shouldn’t be the main issue of the Blue Eagles.
Their main problem is how will they defend La Salle?
The initial thought for many is “Give Ben Mbala his and just make sure the rest don’t get theirs.” That’s a lot tougher done than said. Even though defending Mbala was a point of importance for Ateneo in their Round 2 match-up, he still managed to put up 28 points, 19 rebounds, six blocks and six steals. At the same time, Ricci Rivero scored 17 points while guys like Santi Santillan and Kib Montalbo were able to get their numbers.
Add to that the fact that Andrei Caracut and Aljun Melecio weren’t being their usual selves in that game? So yes, going the “Just let Ben do Ben” route isn’t as easy as one may think. Defending Mbala while still limiting the rest of the Green Archers is a puzzle that the Blue Eagles have yet to figure out.
Thirdy Ravena and Matt Nieto are seen as the best players of the Blue Eagles, but if Ateneo wants to have a shot at beating their rivals, then they’ll need Chibueze Ikeh and Isaac Go to be at their very best.
It is already fact that Mbala will be able to score at least 15 points versus Ateneo, while grabbing somewhere around 15 rebounds. But there’s a difference between an easy 15-15 and a 15-15 game that was fought for. That’s the primary role of Ikeh and Go, they need to give Mbala an incredibly difficult time on both ends of the floor.
When it comes to the defensive end, that means both bigs needing to hold their own anytime Ben tries to seal, or when he tries to drive past them with his first step. At the same time, they have to be wary of possible switches off screen and roll actions from La Salle, or shooters who could use the extra attention placed on Mbala to their advantage. Just managing to rotate properly to a shooter and raising one’s hand is already a big help in the defense of the Blue Eagles.
Offensively, both Ikeh and Go cannot be passive. By all means, when there is an open lane, attack it. Go hard to the hole and either get fouled or score. Being aggressive offensively makes the defense think, and forces Mbala to not freelance defensively since his man is aggressive. This can also mean getting Mbala into foul trouble, getting him out of the game. Ideally, the result is Mbala losing his rhythm because of foul trouble or getting him tired in the end game.
La Salle is a team that has forced Coach Tab Baldwin to experiment with his line-ups. During Round 2 of Ateneo-La Salle, Coach Tab Baldwin was forced to use his entire frontline to try and defend Ben. Kris Porter got some burn, and tried his best to hold his own versus the La Salle frontline in the limited minutes which he was given.
The same happened versus FEU, so expect Coach Baldwin to try and throw out some unconventional line-ups to try and stifle La Salle’s attack. That front-line of Go-Ikeh-Tolentino could easily be used to try and counter La Salle’s jumbo line-up, or maybe he will throw out a line-up of Tolentino-Ravena in the frontline to try and speed things up for Ateneo.
This is going to be an absolute war, not just between players and coaches as well. We’ve revered Coach Baldwin for his coaching for what seems like forever now. This is arguably his biggest challenge yet, as anything less than a title will be considered as a disappointment after their success throughout the entire season.