ATENEO and University of Santo Tomas, featuring two of the brightest coaching minds in college basketball, begin their best-of-three Finals series today in the UAAP men's basketball tournament at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Tab Baldwin and Aldin Ayo will try to outwit each other in the league's biggest stage for the third time in the last four years when the three-peat seeking Blue Eagles and the upstart Growling Tigers clash in the 4 p.m. series opener.
Baldwin lost to Ayo when the Ben Mbala-led La Salle won at the expense of Ateneo in 2016, before the Kiwi-American coach got back at the Sorsogon native the following season when the Eagles dethroned the Green Archers.
Ayo then moved to UST last year and missed the Final Four as Ateneo reigned supreme for the second consecutive season.
This year, Baldwin and Ayo will meet again in a championship series which will highlight the Eagles' disciplined style of basketball and the Tigers' mayhem style of play.
While Ateneo jumped straight to the title round via 14-0 elimination round sweep, UST hurdled Far Eastern University and twice-to-beat University of the Philippines in the step-ladder phase to make it back to the Finals after a four-year absence.
Dubbed by Baldwin as "a blessing for Philippine basketball and in the UAAP", Ayo is expected to give the Eagles a lot of headaches as the Tigers try to end a 13-year championship drought.
"I have so much respect for him and the way he does his job," said Baldwin on Ayo.
Ateneo survived its biggest test in UST, a tough 71-70 first round victory in a midday duel last Sept. 11.
The Eagles then completed a head-to-head elims sweep of the Tigers, 66-52, last Oct. 4 in a game where soon-to-be-crowned MVP Soulemane Chabi Yo was held to a season-low six points.
Ateneo hopes to avoid what happened to the ill-fated University of the East team of 2007 where it was swept by La Salle in the championship round after a perfect elimination round campaign.
"I think there’s always pressure naman for us especially before pa mag-start yung season. They were already expecting something from our team whether it’s a sweep or we win a lot of games. But I think the pressure that really matters is that the pressure we put on ourselves in trying to be the best team and best individuals we can possibly be," said graduating forward Thirdy Ravena.
"And I think that’s what coach Tab reiterates in our practices na we can’t avoid the outside noise, lagi naman yan whether it’s your family member, kung sino magsabi sa yo, kung ano gusto nila mangyari whether it’s a sweep, kung ano man yun, I really think our main focus is that we work together as a team and we do the things that we have to do in order to be the best versions of ourselves," he added.
Ravena hopes to end his college career as a winner so are his fellow Eagles Isaac Go, twin brothers Mike and Matt Nieto.
Renzo Subido, who drilled in the crucial three-pointer against the Fighting Maroons that carried them to the Finals last Wednesday, seeks to cap his stint with the Tigers as a champion, guiding a young crew led by Chabi Yo, Mark Nonoy and Rhenz Abando.