Basketball doesn’t seem to be the favorite topic in the University of the Philippines, the UAAP’s only state-backed team.
Just less than three years ago, the UP Fighting Maroons made history when they became only the second team to go 0-14 in the UAAP Basketball Tournament. The Pep squad seems to get more cheers and UP rarely gets mentioned in the same line as Ateneo and La Salle in conversations unless it’s about academics.
Fighting Maroons head coach Aboy Castro is on the verge of changing all of that.
Since taking over in 2008, Castro has assembled one strong recruiting class after another and by all indication they are set to give traditional basketball powerhouses UST, Ateneo and La Salle a run for their money.
It’s probably too early to predict a trip to the Final Four but that’s what happens when a team beats a perennial champion team in a competitive pre-season tournament.
There is more to it than meets the eye.
The Fighting Maroons’ 68-61 win over the De La Salle Green Archers on Wednesday is more than just a victory on the basketball court. It is one giant leap for UP’s efforts-spearheaded by Castro-to win in the recruitment game.
“Just like in all programs the head coach is really the chief recruiter,” said Castro. “You have assistant coaches who do the scouting for you but by and large it’s your program and you have to sell it.”
Castro fared well in gaining a good share of the recruiting pie last season when he brought in Mikee Reyes of La Salle Green Hills, former UAAP Juniors MVP Mark Juruena of Adamson and Alvin Padilla from San Beda. This year, Castro is eager to play Mike Silungan, who recently completed his two-year residency requirement and former high school standouts Jett Manuel of Xavier High School and Joshua Saret, the former JRU Light Bomber who made headlines last season for his quadruple-double performance in the tough-as-nails NCAA Juniors Tournament.
Silungan is a dynamic scorer and is perhaps the biggest reason why the Fighting Maroons are quickly emerging as a team to watch out for this coming UAAP season.
“I waited two years for this guy. My team was young in 2008 when I came in and we knew that there were going to be growing pains,” said Castro, referring to Silungan. “Coaches always want to expedite it but sometimes you just have to go through it.
Averaging 24.7 PPG in the pre-season, Silungan showed that he can take over games when he scored 35 points against the EAC Generals on Friday, leading the Maroons to 78-75 victory despite the absence of Woody Co and Maggie Sison.
Saret is a surprise addition to the Fighting Maroons.
“It was just a lucky break. We’ve been interested in him since last year,” Castro responded when asked how he lured Saret, who made history after registering 89 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and 13 steals against the AUF Junior Danes last season. “We just kept on talking to him.”
The Maroons are also thinking beyond 2010, recruiting Alinko Mbah, an imposing big man from Nigeria who has been seeing action in the Filoil Pre-season tournament. He will be eligible to play in the UAAP in 2011.
So what draws these players to UP?
“The environment and the culture,” replied Castro. “We do not have the allowances and the facilities that the top three programs but they enjoy playing here and they want to be part of the team to turn it around for UP.”