Round 1 of UAAP Season 85 is over and done with, and the playoff race -- and the championship chase, even more so -- is as wide open as it has been in a long while.
Defending champion UP Fighting Maroons are alone atop the leaderboard, but the Ateneo Blue Eagles, NU Bulldogs, UE Red Warriors, Adamson Soaring Falcons, and La Salle Green Archers are breathing down their necks.
Even the FEU Tamaraws and UST Growling Tigers still have a fighting chance in the competition that has been more, well, competitive than ever before.
With Round 2 just right around the corner, here are five takeaways we got after the first seven games of all eight teams.
Cliché as it has become, anything can happen
The first round ended how it began: with a shocker.
In the season-opener, UST, a team that lost four of its eight rotation players from last season, took down Adamson, a Final Four hopeful with the best collegiate point guard in Jerom Lastimosa. The Growling Tigers haven't won since, but their first and only win came courtesy of catching a big fish.
Then in the round-ender, NU, which had been ahead of the pack, fell to FEU, which lost all of its first five games before ringing off back-to-back wins. The loss not only dislodged the Bulldogs from the top spot in the standings, but also forced them to take on UP and then Ateneo as their first assignments in Round 2.
Add La Salle beating the Blue Eagles for the first time in five years -- only to stumble against UE in their next game -- and the Red Warriors themselves, the pleasant surprise of the season, and indeed, nothing is sure and nobody is safe.
Carl Tamayo is the biggest difference-maker in the league
It's no secret that UP's 6-foot-8 modern big is already too good for the UAAP. At just 21 years old, he's putting up per game counts of 14.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.4 steals in 26 minutes.
Still, numbers don't necessarily tell the story of what Tamayo means for UP. In close wins against La Salle and Ateneo, he was a key cog in the Fighting Maroons' closing lineup and run, winding up at +7 against the Green Archers and +8 against the Blue Eagles.
The last time around, the Gilas Pilipinas talent was still recovering from a right ankle sprain, but with then-1-5 UST making a run in the final frame, head coach Goldwin Monteverde had to send in his top gun. What did do? Nothing, but deliver, of course, scoring five straight points to quell the Growling Tigers' uprising. He wound up with nine points in just nine minutes.
Just as he was in last season's finals, Tamayo is UP's unanswerable question thus far for Ateneo, as he is too skilled for Kai Ballungay, too big for Josh Lazaro, and too quick for Geo Chiu. Put Ange Kouame on him, and that'll free up Malick Diouf or Zavier Lucero for open shots and offensive rebounds, so we'd have to guess that's also a no-go.
He's also State U's solution to La Salle's formidable frontline, as they don't lose any ground with him Diouf, Lucero, and Henry Galinato matching up with the likes of Mike Phillips, Kevin Quiambao, and Bright Nwankwo.
The UP community better make the most of the reigning Rookie of the Year's second season in maroon and green. He's already too good for the UAAP, and it's sooner than later that international interest will turn into overseas offers.
National U has, pound-for-pound, the deepest lineup in the league
Let's be clear: NU has no players who'd have a grade of at least 8 in the scale to 10.
Their best players in John Lloyd Clemente, Jake Figueroa, and Omar John rate at 7 at their best. Steve Nash Enriquez is far from 100% and it shows. Kean Baclaan can turn from 7 to 4, all of a sudden, because of his repeated rookie mistakes.
What the Bulldogs have, however, are 11 players who range from 5-7 in the scale to 10. Add all of them up, and they can match up with the best of the best, as their statement triumph over defending champion UP proved.
Head coach Jeff Napa has crafted well-thought out roles for his rotation players, and they know what to do and not to do (even Baclaan, for all his turnovers, was just doing what was asked of him in trying to create good looks either for himself or his teammates).
NU plays as one unit, especially at the defensive end where they make their opponents work, bleed, and sweat in each and every possession. At the same time, however, come the bright lights and the big stage, playoff teams still need a closer -- that go-to guy who can just will his team to the win.
Just like last season, it remains to be seen who'll that be for the Bulldogs, as their sorry loss to FEU got them no closer.
Ateneo remains Ateneo in terms of taking care of business
Ateneo is second in the standings, but owns the biggest points differential after the first round: 79, with second-place UP 19 points behind them.
The Blue Eagles lost by five points each to arch-rival La Salle and the Fighting Maroons, and those were winnable matches that just escaped their grasp in the endgame. Against NU, the other team presently inside the playoff picture, they won by 17 points.
And against squads at the bottom half of the standings? Tab Baldwin's wards won by nine points and more -- 9 vs. FEU, 27 vs. UST, 21 vs. Adamson, and 15 vs. UE. That means that true to their mentor's philosophy, they treat each and every game the same way.
They never play down to the level of their opponent. And they are the team least likely to be at the wrong end of an upset. So much has changed, but Ateneo gonna Ateneo.
All games will be must-win games from here on out
With how the top three teams and the middle four teams are all bunched up, each and every assignment in the second round will have major implications.
NU not figuring out a way through UP and/or Ateneo in its first two contests? Then the once 5-1 Bulldogs will be on a three-game slide and at 5-4, all of a sudden.
FEU extending their two-game win run to three at the expense of surprising UE? Then the formerly winless Tamaraws will be back right in the thick of things. Even assignments opposite currently hapless UST will have to be taken seriously, as a single loss to the present cellar-dwellers may very well be the difference at the end of eliminations.
Adamson sure hopes that their early stumble against the Growling Tigers won't be a ghost that haunts them right in time for Halloween.