Lone bright spot Nic Cabañero preaches patience in UST rebuild

Nic Cabañero understands that the Growling Tigers must be patient as they rebuild their program. UAAP Media Bureau

It has to be frustrating to be on a 13-game losing streak during a 14-game season.

It has to be be even more frustrating to be losing so much while playing for a proud UST program -- the second winningest in UAAP men's basketball history.

But it's probably the most frustrating to be the centerpiece and face of that losing campaign. So it's safe to say, Nic Cabañero is feeling frustrated.

"Siyempre, 'di naman namin in-expect na ganito pala mangyayari sa'min," Cabañero said after ended the tournament at the bottom of the standings -- the only team to be eliminated before the last game week.

The 6-foot-2 wing is most frustrated at himself. Aside from a breakout first game in the season where he dropped 33 points, Cabañero averaged just 15.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Excluding his strongest showing that ended with their only win, they lost by an average of 13.9 points.

"Pagkatapos ng game na yun, sinabihan na talaga ako ni Coach Bal [David] na marked man na ako. Ita-try ng lahat na i-stop ako," he said. "I need to be ready for that role. I hope next season, mas maging better leader ako. Etong nangyari this season, learning experience ko 'to. 'Di ko na pwedeng isiping bata lang ako."

While the entirety of the season led to frustration, there was still growth in the struggle. Everything the Growling Tigers went through should help lead them back to competitiveness and contention.

All that Cabañero is asking for from the faithful in España Ave. -- a demanding fanbase that counts 19 championships -- is for patience. More time to prove their struggles will lead to growth.

"'Di naman agad-agad ang panalo. Iba ang competition lalo right now, tas kami, composed of sophomores and rookies," Cabañero said. "Be patient lang. Gusto naman namin yung ginagawa ni Coach Bal. Yung chemistry, kailangan lang ng one to two years. Yun yung magiging aim ng UST, matupad yung ganun next season."

The 19-year-old and his equally young teammates aren't having fun looking lost. This wasn't what they envisioned when they entered the season with renewed hope and a new coach. However, just two weeks before the season started, key veterans Sherwin Concepcion and Bryan Santos were ruled ineligible to play due to age.

"Nahirapan talaga kami mag-adjust kasi bago kami and bago kami sa isa't-isa. Hindi naman nakukuha agad-agad ang laro kaya may mga shortcomings kami as a team," detailed Cabañero. "Wala namang coach na napakagaling na two months, agad-agad nang good to go. Even Gilas [Pilipinas], nahihirapan sa new systems."

UST showed it has players and game plans to match up with the best. They frustrated and flustered preseason playoff pick Adamson University and Jerom Lastimosa, considered today's top collegiate point guard, in the tournament's curtain-raiser.

Maybe more time is all the Growling Tigers need. David only had two months to prepare after being installed as the coach. They had only a handful of days to move forward from the sudden loss of Concepcion and Santos, two of their top five scorers last season.

Maybe these are the black and gold's dark days with light soon on the horizon. They don't have to look far to see how it can happen.

The University of the Philippines trudged through a 13-113 record from 2007 to 2015 before several of its alumni got together to serve as collective team backers. Since then, they made the Final Four, got the second seed, and won the title in consecutive campaigns. They now have their sights set on back-to-back championships.

"Like we're already seeing with UP, for you to be competitive, you're gonna need recruits, and for recruits, you're gonna need resources," said assistant coach Rodney Santos, who once helped the Fighting Maroons, and now aids UST's rebuild. "Ganyan din yung lagi kong pinapaalala dito sa UST. We need resources."

David, for his part, seconded his lieutenant's assessment, while also adding a little more.

"Maybe that's (resources) one thing, pero siyempre, mas magandang masanay na walang ganoon. Mas matamis e," he exclaimed. "Yung love and passion for the game, mas gusto kong yun ang kailanganin namin. Maraming nagsasabing hindi na uso yun, pero for me, kaya ka makaka-achieve ng dreams ay ang love and passion."

Whatever their next steps will be, the Growling Tigers themselves hope their fans give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they're headed in the right direction.

"For next season, ayaw na naming maulit na ganito. Basta we're aiming for Final Four, kasi 'di naman pwedeng ikaw yung dulo ta's champion agad. Step-by-step process lang," Cabañero said. "Parang ganito lang yan e: even though gaano ka katalino, pag 'di ka nag-aral, 'di namang papasa ka na lang. Yan ang gusto kong ipaalala sa buong UST. Be patient lang. The time will come na babalik ang glory days natin."