Coaches agreeing that the Blue Eagles will win the championship this season says a lot about how great Ateneo has become under Tab Baldwin

By Klyde Manansala | Photo by Tristan Tamayo

For the Ateneo Blue Eagles, the objective is direct and laid on the line for a longtime now: Win a title.

It’s a straightforward thing to say, nothing more, nothing less. After all, winning a championship is perhaps the ultimate goal of every team competing in the new season. But if those words come from the reigning champs under a fiercely soft-spoken mentor like Tab Baldwin, it’s as if they’re giving a guarantee. Given the preparation Ateneo did in the summer and how they’ve dominated Season 80, saying such a thing is unnecessary.

“I don’t really think [we are the team to beat] in terms of defending the championship. You cannot emulate the stress, the tension, and feel when you actually go [to] play… We don’t choose to try to look beyond one game in terms of setting goals,” Baldwin said.

“Ateneo’s identity as a composed and strong team under Baldwin resonated all summer long. With this, they will enter Season 81 with huge targets on their backs. Every move, every game, all eyes are on them

The Blue Eagles’ highs have been literal skyscrapers. In the past 10 UAAP seasons, Ateneo has bagged a total of six titles, including their historic five-peat run from 2008 to 2012. And even if they fell short of expectations, Ateneo has never been underground bunkers—if they’re not playing in the finals, they still made it into the Final Four, battling for a spot in the biggest stage.

In Season 79, the De La Salle University Green Archers welcomed Baldwin’s first stint with Ateneo, losing in the finals. But the implacable side of Baldwin, which he had lucratively injected to the Blue Eagles’ identity was quick to reveal itself. Come season 80, Ateneo avenged their loss against the Green Archers, spearheaded by Thirdy Ravena, whose basketball career continues to upsurge.

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Now, with the way they have managed to maintain a cohesive team identity built around players like Ravena, Isaac Go, and Matt Nieto—not to mention the boost to their frontline by adding FilOil MVP Angelo Kouame—tagging Ateneo as the favorites is actually spot-on.

“Everyone has a fair chance [to make the Final Four], but the best chance, of course, is Ateneo. I think I’ll be surprised if they lose a game in the eliminations. After them, it’s a fair fight,” said FEU head coach Olsen Racela.

“I don’t really think [we are the team to beat] in terms of defending the championship. You cannot emulate the stress, the tension, and feel when you actually go [to] play… We don’t choose to try to look beyond one game in terms of setting goals,” Baldwin said

Ateneo didn’t wallow in their victory. Instead of a month-long celebration, Baldwin’s squad quickly put in the work. Just last June, the Blue Eagles went off on a 12-game winning streak and routed the Robert Bolick-led San Beda Red Lions at the FilOil Flying V pre-season cup finals.

Kouame, their newly acquired center, was named MVP, proving himself as a great pick-up for Ateneo. The 6’10” versatile center embraces the unglamorous aspect of basketball. He doesn’t need to score to be efficient, he sets the perfect screens, boxes out and grabs boards, and he is a great rim protector as he averaged 2.5 blocks in the course of his stint in the summer league.

After Ateneo’s great run in the pre-season cup, Baldwin’s squad went straight to Taiwan to represent the country at the 2018 William Jones Cup where they finished fourth against countries like Japan, Chinese-Taipei, Iran, and Indonesia.

“We played a lot of games in the summer but the UAAP is a different animal,” he added.

Ateneo’s identity as a composed and strong team under Baldwin resonated all summer long. With this, they will enter Season 81 with huge targets on their backs. Every move, every game, all eyes are on them.

Of course, in order for the Blue Eagles to defend their title, they still need to play their brand of basketball—not too many isolation plays, ball movement, and smooth execution—to dispatch the rest of the field.

Expectations are high, but their off-season work already hinted their chances of winning the chip again this year.