Saturday, October 1, 2011

Preview: Four teams favored as PBA opens

MANILA, Philippines—There was a palpable tone of giddiness in the voice of PBA commissioner Chito Salud as he expressed optimism that at least seven teams could contend for any of the three trophies at stake in the PBA’s 37th season, which kicks off  Sunday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Having laid the foundation for parity by vesting himself with trade veto powers, Salud hopes to sit back and watch more competitive games this season.

“We just maybe have to expect a little less from Shopinas because it’s a new team and it has to feel its way around the league,” said the son of the late former league commissioner Rudy Salud. “But aside from that, seven or eight teams can contend for the championship.”

But while his assessment may not seem like a stretch, it still is fair to say that among the teams that will contend for titles, three will cast the biggest shadows under which the rest of the field will try to crawl out of for their share of the spotlight.

Talk ‘N Text, which won two of the three titles last season before being stopped on its tracks by a Grand-Slam-stopping, giant-slaying Petron squad, is still a deep and talented squad led by reigning Most Valuable Player Jimmy Alapag.

So when a team with that much talent and that much depth receives a boost in the form of an athletic, 6-foot-9 beanpole who trained and played for the Smart Gilas national team, that certainly amps up its ranking.

With Japeth Aguilar joining a frontline that already boasts national team mainstays Kelly Williams and Ranidel de Ocampo, the defending champion Texters should be favored in the opening Philippine Cup.

“It would be interesting to see if we could get into a rivalry with them,” said new B-Meg coach Tim Cone, the former Alaska tactician who broke off a long-time partnership to get his heartbeat racing again.

And he may have succeeded.

“Just the challenge of trying to get into a different situation after 22 years has perked up everything,” he said.

Interestingly, B-Meg packs a punch that could very well line the Llamados up as the Texters’ most serious challenger. Although Cone has set his sights of dominating “the family” first before even thinking of going head-on against Talk ‘N Text.

“We want to beat Petron and Ginebra,” he said. “They’re the prized jewels of [San Miguel Corp.] and if we become better than them, we should be able to compete against the best in the league.”

Cone’s first order of the day is to get James Yap, Kerby Raymundo, Marc Pingris, PJ Simon and the rest of the team to grasp the triangle offense that Cone preaches.

And the American mentor feels his new team won’t have a tough time grasping the system, which he believes will allow James, the team’s franchise player, to shine even more.

“As long as you don’t over-complicate the triangle, the ball will always gravitate to your best player,” said Cone.

B-Meg also has the depth to challenge Talk ‘N Text and the only problem the Llamados really face is that they will basically be starting from scratch, while the Texters will be merely sewing up holes punched by Petron during the Governors’ Cup upset that resonated around the league.

After ruling the Governors’ Cup, one would think the Boosters would be considered the main threat to Talk ‘N Text’s title defense bid.

But Petron will be facing manpower problems going into the season. Jay Washington, Rookie of the Year Rabeh All-Hussaini and daredevil wingman Joseph Yeo are all frozen by injuries, probably the reason why the Boosters have generated little talk in the preseason.

“It’s okay. We’ll just go out and try to do our best,” said head coach Ato Agustin.
“We’ll do things quietly,” veteran Danny Ildefonso said in Filipino. “But I really believe our team got stronger this year and we will be able to compete for the championship.”

The Boosters tabbed Chris Lutz from the rookie draft but its biggest offseason move may have been reacquiring shooter Dondon Hontiveros, who gives the team an added scoring threat aside from Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot while it waits for Washington and Al-Hussaini to rejoin the squad.

Also expected to play key roles, especially on the defensive end, are last year’s top pick overall Nonoy Baclao and guard Dennis Miranda.

Barangay Ginebra is the fourth team that should be favored in the Philippine Cup, what with Jayjay Helterbrand returning to beef up a guard-heavy squad that’s looking to cash in on a window of opportunity that continues to grow smaller and smaller.

“We’re not getting any younger and that makes us more prone to injuries,” said Siot Tanquingcen, who was appointed co-coach along with Jong Uichico, but is expected to make the final decision in crucial situations.

Ginebra has made little improvements in its roster, even losing rebound and defense whiz Rudy Hatfield. That’s why the Kings are hoping that Reil Cervantes makes an impact in his rookie year to cushion the loss of Hatfield, who flew back the US.

Despite being the leanest team among the favorites on paper, though, the Kings are expected to figure prominently in the title chase if only because playing its way out of a corner is something Barangay Ginebra thrives on.

“It’s the same old song,” Uichico said. “But we never give up. We will always battle.”
Tanquingcen echoed the sentiment: “That’s what Ginebra has always been about. We fight the odds.”

With Hatfield out and Erik Menk starting the season on the injured list, veteran gunner Mark Caguioa is expected to shoulder huge responsibilities for the Kings.
“We have one goal,” said Caguioa. “We won our last championship in 2008 and for me that’s like forever.”

But even “The Spark” admitted that the core of the wildly-popular Ginebra team is slowly burning up its shelf life, thus the urgent need to win titles.

“We got a lot of juice left but we really need to start winning now,” Caguioa said.
The Kings, along with Petron Blaze, are looking to make more roster moves before the first week of the season is through. Both teams hope to bolster their frontline with the moves, which is currently being worked out.

Outside of the four squads, things are looking pretty much even with the exception of new squad Shopinas.

Rain or Shine, handled by the mercurial Yeng Guiao, will always be a contender if only for the fact that Guiao’s teams have no quit in them.

Coming into the season, the Elasto Painters will parade Paul Lee, the No. 2 overall pick who is one of the most PBA-ready players among this year’s batch of rookies.

Size may be a problem for Rain or Shine, but it has a competitive core that Guiao can whip up into a contender, including Gabe Norwood, Beau Belga, Ryan Arana and Jervy Cruz.

Meralco could also end up zapping a few opponents here and there to make the playoffs. If anything, the team that struggled for most of last season will not only get chief scorer Mac Cardona back, but a few key additions could bolster the Bolts’ stock.

Jason Ballesteros, the 6-foot-8 Smart Gilas stalwart was picked seventh overall by the Bolts in the recent PBA News.

Ballesteros’ San Sebastian teammate Gilbert Bulawan , a second-round pick, is also coming on board along with former Letran player Bryan Faundo, who was signed from the free agent market.

“I think we’re a much better team physically and mentally this season than last year with these players around,” said Gregorio, a three-time PBA champion mentor.

“We’ve learned a lot and we expect a greater level of passion and ambition,” added Meralco team governor Ramon Segismundo.

Powerade had one thing going for it at the top of the season. The Tigers owned the No. 1 draft pick.

Powerade exercised that option on Smart Gilas quarterback JV Casio.

Unfortunately, Casio’s debut will be derailed by a PFTS (patellofemoral tracking syndrome) injury.

“I’ve been undergoing therapy,” said Casio. “I can play, but I need to complete the rest because it might be aggravated.”

But that isn’t coach Bo Perasol’s main concern.

“We have plans for him in the future and not just short term so we need him to be strong. He knows we have a solid back up for him,” Perasol said.

The Tigers will be led by swingman Gary David, who has evolved into a franchise player under Perasol’s watch. Plus, Powerade will also have another Smart Gilas standout, Marcio Lassiter, who the Tigers also tabbed from the draft.

Alaska will begin its post-Tim Cone era hoping that its history of excellence will be enough to carry the team through a crucial transition period.

“We will continue the tradition,” said new coach Joel Banal. “For 25 years, Alaska has been winning. A chapter has been closed and another has opened, hopefully with another 25 years of good basketball.”

Cone, though, was the only key departure from a team that always seemed in the mix of contenders in any given tournament, which is why Banal isn’t expected to tinker too much with the foundation Cone has put in place.

Barako Bull, now being mentored by Junel Baculi, has a talented roster built around Petron castoffs Danny Seigle and Mick Pennisi, who are hoping to make one last stand for championship glory.

But how long the squad can be competitive in an extended tournament will depend on the youngsters in the team like former UST star and Smart Gilas member Dylan Ababou.

“I’ll do anything asked of me in offense and in defense,” Ababou said in Filipino. “I don’t want to put expectations on our performance because we haven’t really practiced as a team long enough yet. We’ll just stay focused.”

Shopinas coach Franz Pumaren, the former La Salle tactician who spurred the school to glorious collegiate conquests, isn’t expecting much from his team, and rightly so.

With a team built around trimmings from other squads, the Clickers are hoping at best to pull off a few surprises here and there.

In the end though, everything goes back to Talk ‘N Text and the question: With a stronger lineup, can the Texters rebound from the disappointment of not completing a Grand Slam and finally nail a triple crown this year?

If you were to ask Chito Salud, he’d say six or seven teams might have a say on that question.

PBA News 

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