A Brewing Dynasty: A Guide to the Cast Who Comprised the 2018 Ateneo Blue Eagles

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JUST A year removed from the dream season that broke a four-year title drought, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are now back-to-back champions in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 81 Men’s Basketball Tournament. A dominant display throughout the season presents a budding dynasty of Blue Eagles into the limelight. Let us take a deeper look into the members of Ateneo’s tenth UAAP Men’s Basketball Championship: The Blue Eagles Band of Brothers.

1. Head Coach: Tab Baldwin

With two championships after three years at the helm, Coach Tab has emerged as one of the best coaches in the country. His no-nonsense approach to the game has brought him success at all levels of basketball around the world.

Developing an unselfish brand of basketball with a modern approach, the American-Kiwi mentor overhauled the system in Ateneo, veering away from the isolation-heavy offense of predecessor and now University of the Philippines (UP) Head Coach Bo Perasol and turning it into a system predicated on movement on and off the ball, with emphasis on taking shots around the rim and beyond the arc.

His system has been near unstoppable, reaching the finals in only his first year with a bunch of role players who were expected to be a rebuilding team rather than title contenders. Last year, player development became another point of emphasis for Coach Tab as he took the same roster to a near-sweep of the elimination round with a 13-1 record, culminating in an upset of league heavyweights the De La Salle University (DLSU) Green Archers, to bag Ateneo’s first championship since the five-peat era.

Seemingly fine-tuning his system to perfection with a team that's only gotten better, Coach Tab and his mentorship saw the Blue Eagles tagged as the overwhelming favorites this year. Despite the pressure and hype surrounding the team, the Blue Eagles remained focused and hungry, taking the season one game at a time in strict adherence to the culture that Coach Tab has built in Ateneo.

With the addition of Angelo Kouame, Coach Tab finally had a dominant force in the middle, taking a lot of pressure off the guards and resulting to a more consistent and efficient play for the team. After dropping two matches in the first round, the well-oiled Blue and White machine emerged as champions once again, showcasing a masterpiece engineered by the back-to-back UAAP champion, Coach Tab Baldwin.

2. Thirdy Ravena #0 (Forward)

With his combination of size, skill, and athleticism, Ravena is one of the most tantalizing players in college hoops. His insane vertical leap allows him to sky for putback and fastbreak slams while gifting him the rare ability to execute LeBron-esque chasedown blocks.

However, the one thing that's always held him back has been his shooting (or lack thereof). In Season 80, for instance, Ravena shot 22.2% of his threes, sinking 8/36 throughout the whole elimination round. It's been relatively a different story this Season 81, with the do-it-all forward hitting 28.3% from deep on a 13/46 clip, possibly due to a better shot selection from beyond the arc. When the UP defense kept their distance in Game 2 of the finals, preferring to secure the paint and bait the slasher to a relatively low-percentage three, Ravena punished UP with a remarkable 5/7 (71%) three-point clip.

Throughout the season, Ravena has continued improving his craft, evolving from simply being a high flying dunker to becoming a complete player who can pass, finish inside, and shoot. In the finals series, Ravena produced well-rounded averages of 29.5 points, eight rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 2.5 steals en route to the Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. It was the culmination of Ravena’s hard work. With one more year to cement himself as a Blue Eagle legend, the two-time UAAP Mythical Five Member will continue honing his play to establish a dynasty and a three-peat.

3. BJ Andrade #2 (Guard/Forward)

With his average playing time standing at an average of 4.3 minutes per game (MPG), people often see BJ Andrade as the last man on the bench—with the swingman’s playing time often being limited to cameo appearances in late, blow-out games. However, Andrade is still a very talented player who has shown us many times this season exactly why he is a back-to-back champion who undoubtedly belongs on the Blue Eagles roster.

The first thing we noticed about Andrade was his shooting—he is a more than capable shooter who looks extremely comfortable off the catch and shoot, reflected by his 5/10 (50%) conversion from three-point land in this season’s elimination rounds.

Andrade had his defining moment this season in the Blue Eagles’ second-round match-up against the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Growling Tigers—as he dropped a season-high 9 points on 3/5 shooting from deep to see the Blue Eagles dominate UST en route to a whopping 102-62 victory, their first triple-digit game of the season.

Andrade also does his job on the bench, hyping up the team on highlight plays to keep team morale at a high. Say what you want, but Andrade makes his presence felt in the team.

4. Adrian Wong #3 (Guard/Forward)

Following an impressive campaign in Season 79, Wong looked poised to play a vital role in the Blue Eagles’ system for Season 80. However, fate had other plans for the Dallas-born swingman as he infamously sat out last season’s championship campaign due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

As he recovered, Wong found himself hitting the gym hard—working on his craft to make sure that he was ready for UAAP play when the time comes.

To an extent, it paid off. Throughout the season, Wong consistently did what was asked of him from Coach Tab as he hustled hard and tried his absolute best on every possession. His most famous gritty play of the season came in the Blue Eagles’ matchup against the Fighting Maroons on October 14, where Wong put his body on the line by diving for a loose ball against UP, chipping a tooth in the process.

Although his efficiency dropped from 44/116 (37.9%) in Season 79 to 9/49 (18.4%), Wong was still a crucial member of the team who always gave his 100% on his time on the court.

5. Team Captain: Anton Asistio #4 (Guard)

Coming into his final season, the sweet-shooting guard was expected to play a huge role in the Blue Eagles’ bid for a title repeat, as his knockdown shooting ability and veteran smarts play a crucial role in Baldwin’s motion offense. At the same time, Asistio was expected to mentor the younger guys in Ateneo’s next man up mentality.

All of these were accomplished by the senior in no time. He showed renewed confidence and a vastly improved skill set from the season before, averaging 9.6 PPG on a scorching 19/36 (52.8%) shooting clip from rainbow country in the first seven games alone. With defenses focusing more on him, Asistio’s averages went down in the second round, but he still shot the ball at a respectable 34.62% clip that forced opposing teams to play honest defense.

In the finals series against UP, the team captain only connected on two triples, but his mere presence on the court opened up driving lanes for eventual Finals MVP Ravena to finish over single defenders or drop it down low to Kouame for open dunks.

After five years’ worth of sacrifice to serve the Blue Eagles on the hardcourt, the home-grown talent can now call himself a two-time champion. With the conclusion of his illustrious UAAP career, the gunslinger cites the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) D-League and the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL) as crucial steps in achieving his ultimate dream; getting drafted into the PBA.

6. Gian Mamuyac #5 (Guard/Forward)

Gian Mamuyac or “Mamu” as he is normally referred to, had a lot to offer for the Blue Eagles on both ends of the court for this season. Without bias, Mamuyac is certainly one of the team’s best on-ball defenders—he uses his length and lateral speed brilliantly to guard ball handlers, forwards, and big menall three positions, however, Mamu often struggles with bigger and bulkier opponents due to his lanky frame.

Mamuyac is also an excellent off-ball defender with a knack of reading the passing lanes brilliantly. His long wingspan forces opposing ball-handlers to rethink their passing as his abilities to recover on the help are one of the best in the team.

The nifty defender showed his offensive capabilities in the first game of the UAAP Finals—posting 5 points, four rebounds, and four assists from the wing in about 19 minutes of play on the court.

After two playing years so far for the Blue and White, the budding veteran’s resume in the Seniors division will be looking to add to his tally of two UAAP Men’s Basketball Championships.   

7. Team Captain: Mike Nieto #7 (Forward)

Despite slimming down to a more fit physique in the past few seasons, “Big Mike” (or “Medium Mike”), as he is often called by commentators and broadcasters, continued to play a big role for the Blue Eagles this season.

With his hustle and activity on the both ends of the floor, the older of the Nieto twins has been a steady source of energy for the Blue and White. He averaged the third most rebounds in the team with 5.3 a game, behind only Kouame and Ravena despite being only 6’1” and playing the eighth-most minutes for Ateneo.

Nieto is the epitome of puso for Ateneo, snatching crucial rebounds here and there against the giants of the UAAP to swing momentum in the Blue Eagles’ favor. Aside from that, he's also the one of the most vocal players on the court, guiding his teammates to their spots on the floor and helping them stay connected to their defensive assignments.

His younger twin may be the more celebrated player, but Big Mike is just as big for Ateneo. His heart and attitude on the hardcourt have earned him the title of two-time UAAP champion.

8. Aaron Black #8 (Guard)

A shifty guard with the ability to create shots off the bounce, Black has been a key part of Coach Tab’s rotation in the past two seasons. But with the emergence of Tyler Tio as a reliable spark plug and the return of Adrian Wong from injury, Black saw his minutes dwindle to an average of 7.6 per contest this year.

Despite struggling for playing time, Black has provided quality play whenever his number was called, bringing playmaking, scoring, and good defense as evidenced by his performance against the National University (NU) Bulldogs where he notched season-high numbers across the board with 6 points, seven rebounds, and two assists.

Now a two-time champion in the Seniors Division, the mild-mannered guard can now say his sacrifices throughout the season was worth it.

9. Jolo Mendoza #10 (Guard)

Despite Mendoza showing an all-around game in high school with his ability to light up opponents from all over the court, the former UAAP Juniors Finals MVP switched up his game to handle much taller and physical opponents in the senior’s division. As seen in the past few seasons, Mendoza, along with Asistio, have found their niche in the team by acting as the team’s primary three-point threats—delivering buckets from deep when called upon.

For this season, however, it seemed as if Mendoza went back to his roots. In numerous games this season, Mendoza showed his ability and willingness to attack the paint, complementing his mid-range jumpers and runners off high post screens—a facet of his game that made him so deadly in the Juniors division.

With Asistio gone next season, Mendoza’s place as the team’s premier three-point threat is unchallenged. It would be apt to expect a bigger role along with increased minutes on the court for Mendoza in the upcoming seasons.

10. Isaac Go #11 (Forward/Center)

With the emergence of Kouame as an MVP-caliber center, the sweet-shooting big man willingly took a smaller role to serve as backup center and a mentor to the Ivorian rookie.

But even then, the clutch center still proved more than capable of producing his numbers when needed as shown by his 12-point explosion against the second seeded Adamson University Soaring Falcons in the second round. His ability to space the floor at the 5 spot along with his brilliant basketball IQ were crucial factors that opened up the offense, allowing Coach Tab to run with the second unit more.

Although there weren't any game-tying or dagger triples needed in the finals, the Xavier School alumnus proved to be invaluable for Ateneo’s back-to-back championship run. From a player who was often overlooked for his physique, Isaac Go had his feet firmly planted in the championship team.

11. Matt Nieto #12 (Guard)

Matt Nieto had a memorable season to say the least as a finger surgery and dengue contributed to statistical drops in terms of points (6.4 PPG from 11.4 PPG) and minutes (17.6 from 22.4).

Despite all these challenges, the younger Nieto still played a major role for the team when it mattered most, dropping a career-high 27 points, along with a ⅘ (80%) shooting clip from deep to help see the Blue Eagles past the Fighting Maroons, 88-79 in Game 1 of the finals.

Aside from his skills on the court, Nieto is also a great leader who is not afraid to take responsibility for faults in the offense. Despite dropping 27 points in Game 1 of the Finals, Nieto addressed his faults early on and took the blame for not executing plays and leading the team the right way. “I look to execute well, kaya 'yung first half, ako 'yung pinagalitan, kasi I'm not leading the team the right way, and we were not executing the plays,” he said.

As the team’s senior point guard, expect a big season for Matt Nieto next year as he looks to see the Blue and White off to a third-consecutive title. The Blue Eagles definitely need him—and he knows it.

12. William Navarro #13 (Forward)

Finally getting his chance to play in the UAAP after serving residency last year, Will Navarro served as a crucial part of the rotation this year. Providing an added body to the Blue Eagles’ thin frontline rotation, the former San Beda stalwart started four games throughout the season but served more as a backup to Raffy Verano as the season progressed.

His versatility in attacking the lane and hitting the occasional jumper along with his length on the defensive end were key against some of the longer teams in the UAAP, highlighted by his 11 points against the University of the East (UE) Red Warriors in the first round and his season-high 17 points versus UST in the final game of the elimination round.

A winner in his first playing year, expect a more mature performance from the Greek-born Navarro next year as the Blue Eagles gun for a rare three-peat.

13. Tyler Tio #19 (Guard)

The former Xavier School standout had quite an eventful year. First, he did brilliantly to step in for the injured Matt Nieto in his time out, posting 12 points on 5/9 shooting from the field (56%) to go along with five assists in his first career start for the Blue and White in the UAAP.

Tio also showed us a different facet of his game for this season—shying away from the primary scoring option role he commonly played in high school.  Many times this season, Tio showed us his willingness to act as a pass-first point guard, passing on good looks for himself to instead find his teammates for better looks at scoring.

With Matt Nieto back in the mix for the Blue and White in the Finals round, Tio had no problems returning to the supporting role for the team as he posted 6.5 points per game (PPG), 0.5 assists per game (APG), and 1.5 rebounds per game (RPG) in about 12 minutes of play per game.

Throughout the season, Tio showed his unselfishness with his play and willingness to adjust to the team’s best interests. He is also quite the winner at the seniors division, with two UAAP championships in two playing years telling the tale for the Fil-Canadian product.

14. Matthew Daves # 21 (Forward)

Arriving only two months prior to the start of the season, the high-flying Canadian was a late shoo-in to the Blue Eagles’ lineup, shoring up a shallow frontline that was in dire need of bodies.

Having a raw offensive skillset, Daves wasn't entrusted with a lot of minutes (6.8) in his rookie campaign. However, in his limited playing time, the 6’5” forward showed great promise with his insane leaping ability, scoring on putbacks and even throwing down a rim-rattling alley-oop slam against UST to the delight of the Ateneo bench.

With Daves teasing his ability to shoot from mid-range and even beyond the arc during warm-ups, it’s only a matter of getting more experience and learning to navigate into the flow of the offense until Daves finally gets to unleash his potential. For now, the Fil-Canadian rookie can live in the moment and enjoy being a champion.

15. Raffy Verano #22 (Forward)

Despite impressive showings in Seasons 79 and 80, Raffy Verano managed to take it up a notch this season. Not only did he endure as the powerful workhorse behind the team’s defensive possessions, but he has evolved into a legitimate offensive threat for the Blue and White.

In numerous games this season, Verano looked extremely comfortable scoring in both the paint and from mid-range as he constantly hit faceup jumpers from the high post or switched it up by taking his man off the dribble for a lay-up. Verano also showed his evolution as a passer, occasionally finding open teammates through bullet passes from either the top of the key or the high post.

In the finals, Verano did his part by averaging 8.5 PPG, 5 RPG, and 1.5 steals per game (SPG) in 22.6 minutes of action per game.

What adhered to the Blue and White faithful, however, was Verano’s determination and no-nonsense attitude to playing the game as he was always unafraid to guard all positions from 1-5 on the switch. Verano also hustled on each and every possession, doing what was absolutely necessary for the Blue Eagles to gain an advantage over their opponent. For that, Verano was certainly rewarded—he’s now a two-time UAAP champion and an integral starting member of the Blue and White system.

16. SJ Belangel #27 (Guard)

A two-time mythical-five member and UAAP Juniors Champion, SJ Belangel entered college as an elite-level talent—a 6’0 floor general with impeccable vision capable of lighting it up from all areas on the court. Belangel, however, did not receive a warm welcome to the seniors division, as the freshman guard played just two minutes in what was seen as a nightmare of a debut against the Soaring Falcons, whose aggressive and physical full-court press clearly troubled the decorated freshman.

But as time progressed, Belangel matured. Early on, the physical nature and play of the UAAP seemed to cause Belangel some discomfort as he seemed hesitant to attack his defender off the dribble, instead opting to settle for outside shots or dishing out to his teammates. However, as more minutes fell under Belangel’s belt, he improved greatly with a number of mid-range jumpers and drives to the basket being a commonality in numerous games.

For a freshman, Belangel is also hugely impressive as a facilitator on offense—  instructing his teammates to space the floor while running the pick and roll at a very mature and fearless manner.

In the Finals round, Belangel’s minutes were extremely limited. After sitting out the first game, Belangel made the most of his 4.67 minutes of action in game 2 by posting 6 points, 1 rebound, and 2 assists in a very efficient and mature performance for the young guard.

Only a freshman, time is certainly on Belangel’s side to become one of the best point guards in the UAAP in the near future.

17. Angelo Kouame #34 (Center)

Before the pre-season started, nobody knew about the towering big from the Ivory Coast. Coaches described him as raw and inexperienced, but like a sponge on the court, learning quickly and easily from the veterans and the coaches. Fast forward to now, and the newly-minted Rookie of the Year is the talk of the town.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing for Kouame in the UAAP. A one-point performance in his debut loss to the Soaring Falcons brought up some criticism. He looked lost the whole game, giving up numerous costly turnovers that hurt the team. However, just as advertised, Kouame was a sponge. Slowly but surely, he rose up in the MVP rankings every game, improving not only mentally, but also skillswise.

His 33-point 27-rebound masterpiece against the FEU Tamaraws in the second round was the peak of his young UAAP career as he cemented himself as one of the best centers in the league nine games into rookie season.

Kouame finished the year as the runner-up in the MVP race. His 14.5 PPG and 16 RPG averages in the Finals would have earned him Finals MVP honors if not for Thirdy Ravena putting up one of the most dominant performances in UAAP Finals history.

But the soft-spoken giant is now a champion, soaring mightily like an eagle. That's what matters. With four more years left in the UAAP, Kouame will be one of the crucial pillars of Ateneo’s brewing dynasty.

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