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Target: Bulldogs

NATIONAL University (NU) waited 54 years before finally hoisting its second University Athletic Association (UAAP) men’s basketball trophy last year.

Now, the Bulldogs are taking the same mentality in the next four months to defend their title and nail their spot as a legit force in UAAP history.

Season 78 of the UAAP officially launched on Tuesday with the annual press conference at the Gloria Maris restaurant at the Gateway Mall in Cubao, Quezon City.

And it’s no secret that the seven other teams are out to dethrone NU, tagged as one of the teams to beat in Season 78, which reels off on Saturday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

“I have to remind the players that last year, it’s already over and we need to forget that championship because this is a new battle for us,” said Bulldogs Head Coach Eric Altamirano, whose wards beat Far Eastern University (FEU) in last year’s finals that went to a third game.

“We have to accept the fact that we are now the target of the other teams. We need to embrace that challenge and it’s up to the players on how they can handle the challenge,” he added.

Altamirano’s alma mater, University of the Philippines (UP), is Season 78’s hosts and no less than UP President Michael Tan is guaranteeing a unique opening ceremony that will depict the archipelagic culture of the country.

UP prepared a one-hour opening rites, which will start at 1 p.m. The Fighting Maroons will then face the University of the East (UE) Red Warriors in the opener at 2 p.m. University of Santos Tomas (UST) and Adamson University collide at 4 p.m.

FEU, Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle are the three teams that are projected to give NU a run for its money this season.

“Our desire to go all the way does not diminish every year and we know it will be an uphill climb for us,” said Bo Perasol, who is in his second year as Blue Eagles head coach.

Ateneo star Kiefer Ravena, the reigning Most Valuable Player, will lead the team’s campaign and hope to exit the UAAP with a bang.

The Green Archers, who lost to FEU in the Final Four last season on Mac Belo’s buzzer-beating triple in Game Three, are parading nine rookies, led by Joshua Caracut, said to be De La Salle’s next Renren Ritualo.

De La Salle Head Coach Juno Sauler said the loss of Arnold Van Opstal (Achilles injury) and Ben Mbala (one more year of residency for playing in a forbidden league last summer) was a big blow to their coming campaign.

“Definitely they are a big loss,” Sauler said. “But we all accepted that fact and it’s time to move one.”

FEU Head Coach Nash Racela, now on his third season, is hoping that the breaks would go their way this season after reaching the Final Four in his rookie year and the finals in his second year with the Tamaraws.

“We’ll do our best this year and hopefully it will be a favorable result for us,” Racela said.

The Soaring Falcons have a new coach in Michael Fermin. The Fighting Maroons, after two turbulent seasons with Rey Madrid, also decided on Rensy Bajar, a former guard of San Beda College.

The Red Warriors are parading an “all-Filipino” crew this time and probably the youngest squad in the school’s history with nine rookies, five of them no older than 17.

“We’re like a high-school team now,” UE Head Coach Derrick Pumaren said. “Hopefully we can pull off surprises this year.”

Bajar acknowledged the pressure to perform this season with UP being host and their modest target is to improve on their 1-13 record last year. UST’s Bong de la Cruz is also aiming for an improvement from their sixth-place finish last season with a 5-9 record.

Ateneo, meanwhile, got a shot in the arm after the UAAP Board cleared Hubert Cani for Season 78. The league ceded to the Student-Athlete Protection Bill of Senator Pia Cayetano that nullified the league’s two-year residency policy.

Initially, the UAAP Board did not give Cani, a standout from NU Bullpus team, the clearance to play as he needs one more year of residency but Ateneo appealed the case to the board, citing the said law that was signed recently by President Aquino.

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