Yet again, University of the East missed out on the Final Four in UAAP Season 85, extending the league's longest active playoff drought. Yet the Red Warriors are celebrating some successes this season.
"Yes. I'd say na kami nga ang surprise team," said head coach Jack Santiago as his side wound up with a 5-9 record at the end of eliminations. "Kasi kung titingnan mo yung lineup, 'di kami ganun kalakas, wala kaming. But still, every game, nakakapag-compete kami. Ayaw nilang magpatalo. Yung puso nila, nandun."
Just six months ago, UE went through a winless campaign that had them losing by an average of 13.9 points. This tournament, they had three wins after the first five games. The Red Warriors struggled in the second round, losing five-of-seven matches, but were still until the last week of eliminations. And their last win was an upset of playoff-seeking De La Salle University.
UE's a bottom-feeder no more. The Red Warriors are afterthoughts no more. Truth be told, UE was a contender this season.
"I think, naging maganda yung improvement ng mga bata. Right now, I'd say nakukuha na nila yung system namin," said Santiago. "Sana [next year], maging ganito ulit yung season namin. Or hopefully, maka-achieve pa kami ng something na ma-iimprove pa namin."
All throughout the tournament, UE proved it had something. That includes Filipino-foreigners who, typically, don't considering wearing the red and white. Nikko and Kyle Paranada were fearless and merciless in both taking, and making, shots. Luis Villegas had his all-around game. Gani Stevens took care of business in the paint while CJ Payawal added length, athleticism, and range.
UE competed on-court because they competed in recruitment -- more pointedly, overseas recruitment.
That's something Santiago learned from mentor Franz Pumaren. When he was still an assistant for the Green Archers in the 2000s, he witnessed Pumaren open the floodgates for Filipino-foreigners like Don Allado, Mike Cortez and Jason Perkins -- just to name a few.
Fast forward to now, and that remains a recipe for success. Villegas is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year and averaged 13.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game. Kyle Paranada looks like the next coming of school icon Roi Sumang. Stevens had done so well as a post presence that in many moments, it seemed as if they didn't even need a foreign student-athlete.
"Let's put it this way, siyempre, kailangan mong sumabay sa other teams. Nakita mo naman yung ibang teams, they're not necessarily relying on Fil-fors, but it's a big help for them," Santiago said. "Like La Salle, there's [Mike and Ben] Phillips and [Schonny] Winston. Ateneo, [Kai] Balunggay] and Chris [Koon]. Zavier Lucero for UP. Kailangan mong sumabay sa tugtog."
And for the Red Warriors to continue contending, they know they have to ramp up recruitment, especially with Villegas, Payawal, and Nikko Paranada all having played their last years of eligibility.
At the same time, though, the recruiting spotlight has to shine within Philippine borders. Looking ahead to next year, the Red Warriors also hope to prove they can catch big fish in local waters. The next Harvey Pagsanjan, Abdul Sawat or Rey Remogat.
"Of course. Kung meron talaga kaming access sa mga local players from high school o yung mga gustong lumipat, actually, I'm willing to open my hands and lay my hands on them. Minsan kasi, sarado isip nila e, they want to go to the top three teams, pero kung titingnan mo, those teams are so crowded na," explained Santiago. "So if you want to get good exposure, pumunta ka sa team na magagamit ka. Bigyan mo ng chance ang UE. Yung mga gustong maglaro ng UAAP, try niyong pumunta sa amin. Hopefully, matulungan ko kayo."
The rebuild in Recto took another step forward this season. With three of their top eight players departing, however, there's much more work to be done for them to construct a legitimate contender. Paranada, Stevens, Pagsanjan, Sawat, and Remogat remain. But big shoes will have to be filled.
A year from now nobody will be caught off-guard by the resurgent Red Warriors, but this is the position they want to be in.
"Right now, we're continuing to build our team, our program. Siyempre, we need to (replace) those slots na mawawala sa amin," expressed Santiago. "Hopefully, makakuha kami. Hopefully, tuloy-tuloy lang kami."
UE is yet to return to the playoffs. They've already waited 13 years, so what's a few more months? Just more time for Paranada to round out his game, for Stevens to be more comfortable and confident, for Pagsanajan to get back into his groove.
Just more time for the Red Warriors to discover and then develop the next Villegas -- whether from here or abroad.