How Aldin Ayo plans to chart Converge's rise into title contenders

Aldin Ayo's teams in the NCAA and UAAP were built on speed and defense. Can he recreate that success with Converge in the PBA? KC Cruz

Newly-hired Converge FiberXers head coach Aldin Ayo is putting a premium on existing bonds as he embarks on the latest chapter of his coaching career.

Ayo insists that it goes beyond being familiar with a player's on-court ability; it's also about knowing who to really count on when push comes to shove.

"When you reach the point where the pressure is high and you're close to your goal, it's no longer about the player -- it's all about the individual, how they're going to perform under pressure and how they're going to perform when the situation gets tough," Ayo told ESPN.

In Converge, the first-time PBA coach will not be blindly traversing uncharted waters as he inherits a team that already has some of his players from his coaching days at the collegiate level.

Ayo is reunited with Jeron Teng and Abu Tratter, who played primary roles for La Salle's title run in the UAAP in 2016; and Kevin Racal, one of the key cogs for a Letran team that won the NCAA title in 2015.

There's also Justin Araña, who briefly played in a limited role for Ayo in UST in 2018, and recent trade addition Aljun Melecio, who emerged as one of the better lead guards in the UAAP while Ayo coached La Salle from 2015 to 2017.

"These guys are familiar with my system, yes, but they also know me personally," Ayo said. "The system that we had in Letran and La Salle has evolved a lot -- marami na ang nadagdag, maraming na-improve. So it's not necessarily the system itself that's important, but the approach, the demand, they already have an idea. Kaya medyo smooth 'yung transition."

This familiarity could help Converge pursue a style of play similar to the one that made Ayo's college teams successful.

Pace appears to be a selling point. Advanced stats had Converge playing at the highest pace and the highest frequency in transition -- but the FiberXers brass want the youngest roster in the league to lean even more on its youth as opposed to playing in the halfcourt.

"We want to build on what Jeffrey Cariaso has done for us as a foundation for the team," team governor Chito Salud said. "Jeff is a well-balanced coach. He liked a mix of the halfcourt set and of the uptempo game. But our players are young, inexperienced, and they might not be as ready for the halfcourt set as the veterans would be.

"So we were thinking with the owner, Dennis Uy, and handpicked coach Ayo, and we said his collegiate track record bodes well for us, he has a great running game, and he likes to put emphasis on defense. So hopefully he can instill these principles, these nuances in the minds of our players and see that this strategy is put into play."

While Ayo is bent on keeping Converge in the fast lane, he says he's also putting a lot of emphasis on scheme versatility.

"In the PBA, you have to be able to cover everything. Dapat hindi ka one-dimensional. Dapat kung ano 'yung binabato sa'yo, dapat maka-adjust ka," Ayo said. "The coaches here in the PBA are really, really good. The adjustments, they're going to find ways to adjust and shut you down defensively, and they're going to find ways also to look for holes in your defense."

Converge as currently constructed is capable of playing fast, versatile basketball. But if the recent Melecio trade is any indication, the FiberXers won't shy away from wheeling and dealing to give Ayo the best pieces possible.

Will the FiberXers be trading for more of Ayo's former players, then?

"That's an evolving task," said Salud. "We just have to seek opportunities where they may lie. So we won't stop doing that. We'll continue to explore possibilities to upgrade our bench and to see where we can improve our play."

Ayo, for his part, said he'll run with this squad for now and will look to add more players down the road if they're available.

"For me, what we have right now is enough. I'll stick with these guys," Ayo said. "I don't want to change the composition of the team right now because we are really working hard in creating that chemistry, the cohesion that we are aiming for.

"But we're planning to add two or three more, and it will depend on their availability. I think that's it. No more trades in that department, it will depend on the management."

In the meantime, the plan for Ayo and Converge is to seek incremental improvements until the FiberXers develop to a point where contending for a title is a legitimate goal and not a far-fetched dream.

Turning Converge into a championship contender is not a task that can be done overnight, but Salud says the management is patient enough to let Ayo take as much time as he needs to steer them there.

"As a rookie coach, he will encounter a tremendous amount of pressure during his first few games. But we're here to support him. Dennis is fully supportive. We just want him to be the best that he can be in this league in terms of being a leader, in terms of executing his strategy," said Salud.

While Ayo isn't ruling out an immediate rise to championship contention, he insists it won't come at the expense of Converge carefully plotting their future.

"We are establishing our system, and we're going to be patient," Ayo said. "I'm very grateful na 'yung approach ng management ay ganoon din, hindi nagmamadali. But of course, this is competition. You'll never know. We're going to push hard, exhaust everything as long as it doesn't compromise the preparation we're doing in laying down the foundation."