Ateneo’s Thirdy Ravena and UP’s Kobe Paras. PHOTOS COURTESY OF NICOLE HERNANDEZ

The first round of the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) was highlighted by the domination of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Save for the one-point win against the University of Santo Tomas, Coach Tab Baldwin and his boys literally bamboozled the competition, sending a strong message across town that it would be difficult to wrest the crown away from Katipunan. Methodical, clinical and systematic – that’s the brand of Blue Eagles Basketball. It won’t change, and barring any significant injuries, the second round may bring this year’s crown and a three-peat.

The most hyped squad in the tournament, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons (owing to their sensational recruits in Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero), remain the prime favorite to contend for the crown opposite Ateneo. Sitting at second with a record of 5 wins and 2 losses, the Maroons have been on a tear since Paras played his first game for the alma mater of his father Benjie, who together with Ronnie Magsanoc, Eric Altamirano and Joey Guanio under Coach Joe Lipa, gave the UP community their only men’s basketball title in 1986. Question is, can the younger Paras deliver at this time of UP basketball renaissance for the Iskolar ng Bayan? The Fighting Maroons will miss head coach Bo Perasol for three games in the second round after he was thrown out during their last first-round game against Ateneo, for going after the officials who had made bad call. The case is still on appeal and the Diliman faithful are hopeful that the UAAP management committee and commissioner will reconsider their decision. If the Maroons peak at the right time and get their act and talents together in the second round, we might see an Ateneo vs. UP saga for the diadem.

Undoubtedly, the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers are the surprise of the season. Sitting at third place after the first round at 4-3, Coach Aldin Ayo’s mission in the second round is to let his young turks mature quickly, since two of their losses in the first round were close calls that could be blamed on immaturity and poor decision-making. Team Captain CJ Cansino must wake up from a slump of sorts. If he does, their first five will be deadliest, with the backcourt being manned by the seasoned Renzo Subido, super rookies Mark Nonoy and the high-flying Renz Abando, and the leading MVP candidate Soulemane Chabi Yo. In making their case for a playoff appearance, the Growling Tigers are playing not only against the competition but also against themselves. Their destiny is in their hands, and it is now up to Ayo and his staff to piece together their way up.

The last playoff spot will be a toss-up. There’s a triple tie at fourth place for under-achieving squads. The De La Salle Green Archers who were pre-season favorites because of their one-and-done recruits and transferees, seem to be confused on how that rich talent of theirs would translate into being a well-oiled machine. After the first round, the potential of their highly touted recruits remains as is, a potential. If the coaching staff led by “active consultant” Jermaine Byrd will not make the necessary adjustments, he might as well be done after this season together with their one-and-dones.

The Adamson Soaring Falcons on the other hand are a display of inconsistency, possibly because of the departure of their reliable players such as Papi Sarr and Sean Manganti. Jerick Ahannmisi is still in search of his touch from way beyond downtown. He must now assert leadership of this young squad, something that needs to happen in the second round if the Soaring Falcons want to replicate last year’s playoff success. The only bright spot in Coach Franz Pumaren’s roster is one-and-done recruit Val Chauca who deliver norms of 15 points per ball game.

The Far Eastern University Tamaraws, on their part, are in need of a true leader and he must emerge fast. Wendell Comboy has been their leading scorer with 10 points per outing, but he must step up to influence their young crew to be mature in crack situations. Maybe this can be a rebuilding year for the Morayta boys of Coach Olsen Racela.

The cellar is filled with hope and heartbreak. The University of the East Warriors looked promising at the beginning of the tournament with the addition of one-and-done Cebuano shooter Rey Suerte and transferee Adama Diakhite. But the shock resignation of Coach Joe Silva at the start of the tournament seems to be affecting the performance of the squad that is now mentored by team owner Bong Tan, assisted by “active consultant” Lawrence Chongson.

Finally, the lowly Bulldogs. How did it come to this point? They avoided a winless first round by winning big against the FEU Tamaraws, only to be beaten by the UE Red Warriors. Their story so far is immaturity in closing out games. Dave Ildefonso and company must put their swag (and fiery kicks) aside and fully embrace Coach Jamike Jarin’s principle and system for the Jhocson-based squad to avoid performances reminiscent of the pre-Henry Sy era of National University.

The stone has been cast. The stage is set. The second round is not for the boys. Let the real men now show up.