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UAAP Season 85 too-early power rankings: UP still up there, then a mess in the middle

Carl Tamayo and the UP Fighting Maroons head into UAAP Season 85 as the defending champions and are -- at present -- looming as the team to beat once again. UAAP Media Bureau

UAAP Season 85 tips off on Saturday, with season host Adamson Soaring Falcons taking on rebuilding UST Growling Tigers, and then defending champion UP Fighting Maroons getting challenged by determined and dangerous La Salle Green Archers.

Then on Sunday, preseason kings NU Bulldogs tangle with upset-conscious UE Red Warriors, while former three-peat titlists Ateneo Blue Eagles face off with constant contender FEU Tamaraws.

Intense action is upon us, but just before all that, how do we feel about our eight teams? Normie Riego and Eros Villanueva rank them -- yes, even before they play a single second!

1. UP FIGHTING MAROONS

Wins during the UAAP itself are the only measure of success that truly matters. Until then, most preseason impressions should be taken with a grain of salt -- and UP will remain the favorite to repeat until proven otherwise.

An early exit during the 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup and some tough losses to pro teams in the Korean Basketball League during their offseason buildup don't really take away from the fact that at full-strength, the Fighting Maroons are capable of blowing the doors off most mid-level teams while getting enough advantages in the margins to come out on top against the elite squads.

Carl Tamayo, Zavier Lucero, and Malick Diouf will continue to fortify the frontcourt, but the lack of consistent production in the backcourt will be a concern with Ricci Rivero gone and CJ Cansino out for the season. Terrence Fortea and RC Calimag, who both turned in solid showings in the preseason, have the chance to step into the opportunity and help State U make history anew. -- Villanueva

2. LA SALLE GREEN ARCHERS

La Salle looks like the most complete team in all the league. Hardworking big? 'Motor' Mike Phillips. Do-it-all big? Kevin Quiambao. Primetime playmaker? Evan Nelle. Closer? Schonny Winston. Rising star? CJ Austria. Sixth man? Mark Nonoy.

The Green Archers have but a few holes -- if any -- and they proved just that with a strong semifinals finish in Filoil and then an impressive championship in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup. The green and white defense will stand strong, just as it always has with a Pumaren calling the shots.

And while last year, it was the offense that tripped them up, they now have an ace up their sleeve in Quiambao, a 6-foot-7 modern big who can serve as fulcrum of an offensive system, while also being a mismatch for majority of his counterparts. Nelle boldly claimed that La Salle is actually "the favorite" and "the no. 1." Now, it's all about walking that talk. -- Riego

3. ATENEO BLUE EAGLES

The departures of SJ Belangel, Tyler Tio, Gian Mamuyac, and Raffy Verano will hurt, but there's little reason to believe Ateneo won't be able to replicate the standard of Season 84, where they posted the league's best offensive and defensive ratings.

Big man Kai Ballungay's addition should help; he already looks like a handful, and his two-way play should make him a walking mismatch the moment he steps on the UAAP floor for the first time. Dave Ildefonso's growth as a playmaker has also been encouraging and should make him an even more dangerous scorer than he already is. Normally, it'd be hard to justify Ateneo's low ranking here given how, in many ways, they're still the well-coached, cohesive Blue Eagles of old, but there are valid questions they'll have to answer entering the season.

With Belangel gone, it remains to be seen whether Ateneo has a stable, consistent lead guard beyond Fortshy Padrigao -- who's brimming with potential, but has yet to truly put it together. There's also the health of Ange Kouame; if the reigning MVP's knee is less than 100%, a lot of what makes Ateneo great on both ends of the floor falls apart. -- Villanueva

4. NU BULLDOGS

The preseason is just that: the calm before the storm. Even NU head coach Jeff Napa was quick to remind everybody -- including his own wards and staff -- that winning it all in Filoil and the Universities and Colleges Basketball League is "no big deal."

While, indeed, preseason performance isn't necessarily a guarantee of in-season performance, the Bulldogs still showed a lot of promise worth believing in. They had actually lost Shaun Ildefonso, Janjan Felicilda, Reyland Torres, and Issa Gaye, and somehow, someway, they actually seem deeper and more balanced.

Court general Steve Nash Enriquez is now running the show, with a new partner-in-crime in sparkplug scorer Kean Baclaan. Omar John appeared to be an upgrade over Gaye at the pivot. And if there ever was a time for John Lloyd Clemente to take the next step to his long-assumed superstardom, his fifth and final year has to be it. Yes, the blue and gold is the trendy darkhorse for the season, but maybe, just maybe, we should all already be putting them in as a legitimate contender. -- Riego

5. ADAMSON SOARING FALCONS

Adamson will go as far as Jerom Lastimosa will take them -- and if he continues this upward trajectory, a Final Four appearance probably isn't too far off. Lastimosa's blend of shotmaking, playmaking, and timing on defense might make him the second-best player in the UAAP today behind Kouame, and a perfect foundational player to build a team around.

The Soaring Falcons, as constructed, have good pieces to surround their star; Lenda Doaunga is a heady play-finisher, while Vince Magbuhos and Cedrick Manzano's body of work on the defensive end continue to inspire hope. Encouraging perimeter production from AP Manlapaz, Matty Erolon, and Ray Allen Torres could keep Adamson from posting a tepid attack similar to last season (6th in offensive rating), while Joem Sabandal's rise alongside Lastimosa could tie things altogether in the backcourt.

NU -- the team that booted them out of the Filoil semifinals -- is a daunting roadblock for a playoff spot, but it's highly possible Adamson turns the tables around once the stakes get higher. -- Villanueva

6. FEU TAMARAWS

Let's just get this out of way. Doubt FEU at your own risk. The Tamaraws boast of the longest active playoff streak in all the league -- eight straight to be exact -- and for good reason. This basketball program seems to never run out of contributors.

While they may not have had a superstar since the days of Mac Belo (let's just call RJ Abarrientos a shooting star that was gone as soon as he arrived), most, if not all, of their 15-man lineup are solid players. That hasn't changed this season, with Bryan Sajonia and Patrick Sleat slotting into the void left behind by Abarrientos.

Ultimately, though, the green and gold's campaign hinges on whether or not L-Jay Gonzales remembers that he's actually a Russell Westbrook clone (prime, Oklahoma City Thunder Russ, just to be clear). If he returns to being a triple-double threat game in and game out, Lastimosa better look over his shoulder at the oncoming challenger as best point guard in college. -- Riego

7. UE RED WARRIORS

It's hard to envision a much better season for UE this time around, but it doesn't seem like the Red Warriors can sink back to last season's lows. A competitive 4-4 slate in Filoil was a good sign that they are capable of playing competitive basketball -- a trait that they can replicate once the season rolls around.

Squeezing out more efficiency from Harvey Pagsanjan and Paranada brothers Kyle and Niko should be on top of the to-do list heading into the season for a UE side that posted the second-worst offense in the previous academic year, while the addition of Gani Stevens, Luis Salgado, and Calvin Payawal adds more size -- and consequently, more resistance -- to a previously undersized Red Warriors roster.

UE still has ways to go before being able to contend, but they have to start somewhere -- and this feels like a decent place to get the program going. -- Villanueva

8. UST GROWLING TIGERS

Are you aware that UST actually had a promising preseason? They were playoff threats in Filoil and quarterfinalists in D-League. Even if Bal David was named head coach later than they would've wanted, they still had the makings of a competitive squad.

Key word being, had, as after all those tournaments, Baclaan transferred to National U and Stevens moved to UE, while Sherwin Concepcion and Bryan Santos were deemed ineligible by age.

Those are four of the Growling Tigers' top seven guys in the preseason, essentially meaning all those preparations were for naught. David still has Nic Cabañero and Paul Manalang as starting points for a rebuild, but this campaign looks like it'll be a challenging one for España's proud program. -- Riego