My early UAAP picks

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The University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 81 men’s basketball tournament was off to a flying start and the action has not let up a bit.

Now that we’re done with twelve game days, I love how each team has notched a victory and how unpredictable the results have been.

From Adamson University upsetting Ateneo de Manila University on Day 1 to Far Eastern University (FEU) losing to BOTH to University of the East (UE) and University of Santo Tomas (UST) to host National University (NU) going on a five-game slide, the first round has not been short on storylines.

Of course, as with any new UAAP season, another key talking point is how good the newcomers have been so far.

We have a terrific bumper crop of new faces making waves in the seniors’ division — from rookies who just finished high school, transferees who have made immediate impacts and those who just finished serving their residency, there has been no shortage of tantalizing new talent for fans to watch.

Here, let’s look at a few players who have been, at least for me, the best newcomers so far in UAAP Season 81:

First and foremost for me is Bright Akhuetie of Univeristy of the Philippines (UP).

The 6-foot-7 native of Kaduna, Nigeria was projected to be a massive difference-maker for the Fighting Maroons this season, and so far, the numbers back that up.

He averages 15.3 points, 16.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, helping UP to a three-win, three-loss record, which is good enough for a fourth place tie with De La Salle University (DLSU).

The knock on Akhuetie in his debut UAAP season has been inconsistency. But once he gets fully adjusted, he should be more of a mammoth on both ends of the floor.
Another foreign student-athlete who has turned a lot of heads is Ateneo’s Kakou Ange Kouame, who hails from the Ivory Coast.

The 6-foot-10 center is just a freshman for the Blue Eagles, but he has lit up the board after just six games, helping the defending champions keep in step with Adamson at the top of the table.

Like Akhuetie, Kouame has put up a double-double stat-line — 11.3 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per contest.

His combination of size, length, athleticism, and youth has made Ateneans salivate at the prospects of going back-to-back this year.

As good as both Akhuetie and Kouame are, though, perhaps the most exciting newcomer thus far has been UST’s CJ Cansino.

The 6-foot-2 former UAAP Juniors Most Valuable Player was highly regarded entering the seniors’ division, and his game has definitely lived up to the hype with the way he has been carrying UST both on offense and defense.

The former Tiger Cub is second in the squad in scoring and rebounding with 14.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per outing.

He has drawn comparisons to past UST greats like Cyrus Baguio and Kevin Ferrer, and by the looks of it, he’s set to carve his own niche in the lore of Growling Tigers basketball.

Not to be outdone, Cansino’s chief rival from the juniors’ division — Sean Dave Ildefonso — has also been very impressive.

The son of Philippine Basketball Association legend Danny Ildefonso won the Season 80 juniors’ title last year with Ateneo before joining his father and brother in Sampaloc and his high level of play has not skipped a beat.

Despite the Bulldogs’ dismal one-win, five-loss slate, Ildefonso has been a bright spot for coach Jamike Jarin.

The 6-foot-3 wingman is currently tied for seventh overall in scoring with 14.0 points per game while also grabbing 5.0 rebounds and handing out 2.5 dimes per contest. This kid is undoubtedly a stud.

Also making a lot of noise from NU is Ildefonso’s fellow rookie John Lloyd Clemente.

Clemente was a key cog for the NU Bullpups when they won the title two season ago, and though he was off-the-grid last year because he was still in high school but at the same time was too old to continue playing in the juniors’ division, he has been an impact player for the Bulldogs in Season 81.

The 6-foot-3 guard-forward has been a reliable member of NU’s supporting cast, recording averages of 8.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game. Look for him to play an even bigger role in the second round as NU goes for broke to try and make the Final Four.

Also worth mentioning are fifth-year Filipino-American NU center Troy Rike, whose size has given the Bulldogs added bite, UST’s Joshua Marcos, an unheralded recruit from La Salle Green Hills who has made his mark, and the Green Archers’ Joaqui Manuel, who has been a regular starter for coach Louie Gonzales.

Indeed, what an excellent cast of newcomers for Season 81!

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