As Ateneo de Manila University returned to the top, the University of the Philippines remained right on its heels. Not far behind is mostly intact National University and a determined De La Salle University. And of course, Adamson University, Far Eastern University, University of the East, and University of Santo Tomas aren't slouches either.
Here is a look at one player from each team with the most urgent calls to be answered before we tip off the new season.
Adamson Soaring Falcons: Joem Sabandal
UAAP Season 85 averages: 6.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 19.3 minutes
The past two seasons Jerom Lastimosa -- arguably the hands-down best collegiate point guard in the league -- has needed a Robin to his Batman. And for the past two seasons, backcourt running mate Sabandal had been seen as perfect casting for the role. Only, it hasn't quite come together yet for the onetime UAAP Boys Basketball Mythical selection.
There's no better time than now in UAAP 86, however, for the 5-foot-11 guard to prove his worth. With Lastimosa's status unknown because of a knee injury, Sabandal will now be tasked to take over a Soaring Falcons side seeking a second straight Final Four berth. Without a doubt, he has the capabilities to make it happen. Will he have the confidence to do so?
Ateneo Blue Eagles: Mason Amos
During his stint for Gilas Pilipinas in one window of the FIBA World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers, Amos gave fans a taste of the reasons why big things are expected of him in Ateneo. Through two games, both wins, the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 6.5 points, 1.5 3-pointers, and 1.0 rebounds.
Now, he'll have to help lead Blue Eagle's title defense after they lost Dave Ildefonso, Ange Kouame, Forthsky Padrigao, and BJ Andrade. The Filipino-Australian is a modern big in every sense and will thrive in Tab Baldwin's tried and tested system. Managing his own great expectations alongside managing expectations for the team is another mountain for the first-year player to climb.
FEU Tamaraws: Mo Faty
While Patrick Tchuente averaged a solid 5.1 points and 7.3 rebounds for FEU last season, the 6-foot-11 Cameroonian wasn't somebody the team could rely on for things other than rebounds and rim protection. Enter Faty, at 6-foot-11 and from Senegal who has surer hands and a more aggressive motor.
All of L-Jay Gonzales and Patrick Sleat's slashes? He must be ready for drop offs and then lift offs. All of Xyrus Torres's long-range missiles that'll miss its mark? He has to be raring to perk up and clean up. All of the opportunities Cholo Anonuevo will create from a high-low game? He must be there in the right place and at the right time. In short, for FEU to exceed expectations, Faty has to prove himself to be a top-half foreign student-athlete.
La Salle Green Archers: Evan Nelle
UAAP Season 85 averages: 11.1 points, 5.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 28.1 minutes
From his time in San Beda to now as La Salle's lead guard, Nelle's so-called clutch gene has long been questioned. Make no mistake, the 5-foot-11 playmaker is already one of the best in all of college. Still, big moments in big games have become dark clouds that ruin his sunny days.
Now in his final season, the 24-year-old gets one last shot to prove he can lead his team during big moments. Nelle has always had all the confidence in the world, and his skills will be the envy of just about most guards. There's one thing he still has to do in college, though: Win a championship as the lead guard, and not only as Robert Bolick's understudy.
National U Bulldogs: Omar John
UAAP Season 85 averages: 7.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.4 assists, 26.3 minutes
Seemingly from out of nowhere, National U paraded one of the UAAP's better foreign student-athletes last year. In John, the Bulldogs had an answer -- or at the very least, close to it -- for players like Kouame and Malick Diouf. A two-way force, the 6-foot-10 pivot was a big part of the blue-and-gold's return to relevance.
Many times over, though, emotions got the better of John, leading to several penalties and forcing the hand of head coach Jeff Napa to take him out to cool his head. Times like those, no question, hurt National U, which is better by 31 points overall for all the time its foreign student-athlete was on the floor.
UE Red Warriors: Jack Santiago
It's Year 3 now for Santiago, multi-time champion Franz Pumaren's longtime first lieutenant-turned-UE shot-caller. The first year was forgettable, to say the least, as he was suspended by the school for the majority of Season 84. The next year was much better, as the Red Warriors turned into Season 85's darlings, pulling off shockers like two triumphs over La Salle and pushing the Final Four teams to the limit.
Yes, we're cheating here and naming Recto's head coach as the one with the most to prove, but that's just the cold-hard truth. Who's the real Santiago? The tactician who wasn't there as his team trudged through a winless season, or the mentor who guided his side to a surprise 5-9 campaign?
UP Fighting Maroons: Seven Gagate/Luis Pablo/Sean Alter
Gagate's NCAA Season 98 Juniors averages: 15.6 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks, 31.3 minutes
Pablo's NCAA Season 98 Juniors averages: 17.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 blocks, 30.6 minutes
UP lost a lot of talent from a year ago -- perhaps none bigger than Carl Tamayo (13.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 23.5 minutes) and Zavier Lucero (11.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 assists, 23.3 minutes). Those two provided big shots and big plays for the Fighting Maroons, as well as versatility for head coach Goldwin Monteverde.
Now, the onus will be on rookies Gagate, Pablo, and Alter to fill those big shoes. Yes, all are blue-chip recruits and yes, all are modern bigs who will be unleashed to their maximum capacity by Monteverde. Still, that may very well be too much to ask from first-year players who will be put in that position for a team with championship - and a dominant championship, at that -- aspirations.
UST Growling Tigers: Nic Cabañero
UAAP Season 85 averages: 17.6 points, 6.6 points, 2.9 assists, 30.1 minutes
Cabañero shone bright like the sun last season, as anything and everything about UST revolved around him. Without much help, the 6-foot-2 wing emerged as one of the most potent weapons in all the UAAP. Whether inside or outside, whether shot-making or playmaking, whether transition or set plays, he was the engine -- and perhaps even the fuel -- that kept the Growling Tigers running.
With Pido Jarencio returning to the coaching chair and a handful of promising prospects as well as a rising foreign student-athlete in Adama Faye, Cabañero won't necessarily have to do as muc. Now, he'll just have a golden opportunity to be the leader of a squad plotting to be the David to many league Goliaths.