Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

AL Rookie of the Year. Give Aaron Judge the MVP Award too.

Monday, November 13, 2017

UP’s Rob Ricafort and slaying his Goliaths

UP’s Rob Ricafort and slaying his Goliaths
by rick olivares

Rob Ricafort isn’t going to forget that day. It was September 23, 2017. The University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons were going to play the mighty De La Salle Green Archers in the main match of a double header at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Earlier, his lawyers were able to secure a temporary restraining order on the UAAP’s ruling that Ricafort not suit up. Because he was turning 25 during the scholastic year (but not during the men’s basketball tournament).

During UP’s customary pre-game ritual, head coach Bo Perasol assigns the prayer leader by the jersey number. Yet on that day, everyone seemed to grasp the moment. “Rob, you lead the prayer,” quite a few people enthused.

Ricafort obliged but in his mind wondered what to say. Here’s a 24-year old kid who bounced around, made some bad decisions in his young life, and found a lifeline at State U. When the UAAP Eligibility Board initially denied his slot on the team, Ricafort found himself depressed beyond belief. “Just when I started to straighten out my life, basketball which is like a lifeline for me, was being taken away,” Rob recalled himself thinking.

During his prayer, Ricafort likened UP’s match against the defending champions like David against Goliath. It was like that for himself too. Battling a drug addiction (he has long since been rehabilitated) and all sorts of problems a young man shouldn’t have to go through in the best of their growing up years, Ricafort had found himself bouncing back. “I had a bunch of Goliaths for problems,” he said. “But we can be Davids too.”

The Fighting Maroons, if you want to use a biblical analogy, slew the Goliath, a 98-87 triumph, that was the highlight of the season for UP. And when Ricafort was called by Perasol to enter the game at the 7:54 mark of the second period – yes, Rob knows what time it was so well – he told himself: “Don’t look at the crowd. Control your emotions.”

Rob couldn’t believe he was checking into the game. He had long wished to play ball as he was a teammate of Kiefer Ravena in Ateneo. He didn’t make it and he moved to San Beda, La Salle, to the US, and even suited up for two months for NU in a non-UAAP league before finding a home in UP.

“The first time I got the ball (off a feed by Paul Desiderio), I saw Ben Mbala come up to meet me and I just threw up the ball and missed,” recalled Ricafort. “The second time, Paul once more found me and this time it was Andrei Caracut chasing me and he slipped. I laid the ball in and tried to act as if nothing had really happened. But my heart was swelling. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding.”

Ricafort scored only two points and issued one assist in 10 minutes of play. “It was a good 10 minutes that I will never forget,” he thought back.

One month and 18 days later, on November 11 to be exact. The Fighting Maroons took down National University, 106-81, to give themselves a sliver of hope of forging a playoff for the fourth and last Final Four seat. As fate for have it, the FEU Tamaraws defeated a hobbled Adamson squad squelching UP’s dreams.

At the time of the Adamson-FEU match, the UP team had dinner at the nearby North Park restaurant monitoring the game. Everyone was rooting for Adamson to win. By midway through the fourth and final quarter, it was evident that FEU wasn’t going to fade. With two minutes to go and more and more likely a Tamaraw victory, the Fighting Maroons got up and gave one another hugs and back slaps. Some pictures were taken and words of encouragement passed around.

“It didn’t sink it yet that our season was over,” thought Rob. “We were still dealing with the high of winning against NU. But it was our last.”

Just as he did in his UAAP debut, Ricafort finished with two points – in a win. He only suited up for eight matches with an average of four minutes of action averaging 0.5 points and 0.9 rebounds. Hardly any stats to set the world on fire. However, you have to consider the roller coaster ride of emotions that eroded his confidence. After the 20-day TRO had elapsed, Ricafort and his UP lawyers as well as the league underwent a marathon session to finalize the decision on whether to allow Ricafort to play. The judge of course, made a decision in Ricafort’s favor.

“At first, people would tell me everything would be all right, but I had to worry about UP forfeiting its wins where I played. And of course, there was my mindset and confidence that really took a toll on me. It was very difficult.”

The kid who had played so well before that he even got some notices from US schools (when he moved to America) was a shell of his former self. “Coach Bo (and my teammates as well as UP management) really stuck to me and gave me all the encouragement I needed. But it’s hard when you do not know if you’ll ever play again.”

However, more than basketball, Ricafort has his life back. The demons that haunted him during his younger days are now at bay. He’s graduating in a couple of years and has most recently applied for the D-League Draft. “I didn’t get to show what I could really do, but I am grateful for the chance. How many people get to play for UP and in the UAAP? Plus, I like to think that I was a part of something good; a team that gave UP students and alumni something to cheer for. And well, I’ll finish my schooling and work on getting better to try for the PBA. Everything that has happened – including the bad – I would not trade it for anything else. Because I learned from it. It was hard and maybe even a bit later than I hoped. But what is important I have hope and I have put my life back on track.”

And now, he’s got another Goliath (fighting for a D-League slot and finding a team) to slay.

“’Game on’, is all I can say,” Rob Ricafort says.

Looking at Ateneo’s loss to La Salle

Looking at Ateneo’s loss to La Salle
by rick olivares

The De La Salle Green Archers defeated the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 79-76 by blanking the latter in the last 2:25 to ensure a Final Four instead of Ateneo going straight to the Finals.

For La Salle, it shows Ateneo that they aren’t as invincible as they think. Two, it re-affirms their belief that they are still the top dogs in the league until taken down. It helps give Kib Montalbo much needed confidence – as if he needed it – heading into the UAAP’s second season. It also does the same for Abu Tratter who for the most part this season was the forgotten man with Leonard Santillan taking over his starting slot with aplomb.

For Ateneo, there is much to learn.

There are a couple of ways you can look at the loss – one, it does keep you active with no particular extended rest that could result in rust. Two, the streak ended and the pressure of keeping it going has been lifted. Three, you adjust from this loss.

You have to give the Green Archers credit for their defensive stops in the final 2:25 as Ateneo suddenly became uncharacteristically shaky in the crunch time. They also shot themselves in the foot with shocking turnovers.

Let’s hold that thought so we can go back at the start.

Both teams threw double teams at certain players.

Ateneo threw a double team at Ben Mbala while La Salle had two players on Matt Nieto to give up the ball.

Both strategies worked up to certain points but Mbala ultimately came out on to as he got the job done on both ends of the court and in the crunch. What a stat line – 28 points, 19 rebounds, 6 steals and 6 blocks (versus 5 turnovers).

La Salle’s press mostly did not work. What worked for them was the unconventional lineup that worked in the second period for a stretch. At one point, La Salle had Ben Mbala, Abu Tratter, and Justine Baltazar on the floor. It worked for a bit as Thirdy Ravena was rather careless in bringing up the ball. Imagine that. He got picked off twice by Mbala. Come on.

I am rather surprised they didn’t expect this. La Salle used that strategy against UP and UE in this second round.

Ateneo adjusted come the third period killing that tall line-up with Mbala going out for the aggressive show. Isaac Go and a few others scored inside giving La Salle fits. What they did later on was put Tratter out and hope that his athleticism and wingspan could trouble Ateneo’s shooters while Mbala stayed inside the lane.

In the first period, Santillan led the hit parade after which he turned it over to Mbala for the second period scoring. Ricci Rivero was shut down in the meantime.

Ateneo got its points from Matt Nieto and Isaac Go but Thirdy, Aaron Black, Anton Asisitio (who hasn’t played well in a while now), and Mike Nieto looked out of focus. Ravena got going in the second half but Mike Nieto never got going. Furthermore, Chibueze Ikeh and Vince Tolentino were in foul trouble.

To be honest, I am kind of surprised that Tyler Tio has not seen one second of action in both Ateneo-La Salle matches. I am not convinced of Jolo Mendoza or Gian Mamuyac’s ball handling skills (they struggle when bringing it up all the way from the backcourt). Just my thought but Ateneo could use Tyler come the next few games. He just needs to dribble less and make quicker decisions. I understand it is all part of the learning curve this being his first season.

I am sure though there is a reason why he is being held back. Trust the Ateneo coaching staff after all, they’ve done a great job these past two campaigns.

Now there was a stretch where Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin went with Gian Mamuyac, Kris Porter, and Jolo Mendoza in the fourth period and they hiked the lead to 66-54. Under withering assault from the defending champs, Ateneo still held firm, although the lead was sliced to six, 71-65, with 5:29 to play.

With 2:25, Ateneo led, 76-69, then Thirdy committed an offensive foul, Matt Nieto’s lazy pass was picked off by Rivero. And Go was whistled for traveling.

Was the final play good? Sure, it was. Isaac just missed. If he made it, Baldwin would once more be hailed as a genius (as if he isn't).

What La Salle got right was they shackled Matt Nieto in the fourth period where he has burned opponents. Matt had one attempt (he missed) and one rebound. That’s it. Not counting the costly turnover. By game’s end, La Salle scored six turnover points in the fourth period to Ateneo’s two. That was the difference right there.

In contrast, La Salle’s top two players in crunch time got going – Ricci Rivero had 12 points in the fourth while Mbala added 7.

I have always postulated --- even going back to last season – if Ateneo wants to take the title, Ikeh needs to play well. The Big Fella has been all right this season. His finest since his rookie year of Season 77. But he was in foul trouble during the game.

One can make the case for the officiating but both sides saw bum calls. And in spite of that, Ateneo still had a chance to win but they botched it.

Having said all of that, you have to like how Raffy Verano, giving up some height, gamely battled on. Ditto with Vince Tolentino in limited minutes. Even Kris Porter, usually overmatched, gave an okay account of himself.

What do the Blue Eagles need to do? They need to get Asistio untracked. They need Mike Nieto chipping in quality minutes. And Ravena needs recognize that La Salle knows what he is going to do when he spins in that lane (actually last year pa nila alam) and when he needs to pick up the pace.

It’s a tough loss but the team should take comfort that sweeps are never Ateneo’s best suit in the UAAP. Ateneo ended La Salle’s dreams of an undefeated season last year by shocking them in the second round. The Green Archers paid the favor. Now the onus is on the Blue Eagles to adjust and see off FEU, first.

As for La Salle, they are in familiar territory in the Final Four. The question is… how much has Adamson grown in the last year? Can they bring it against La Salle?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Four points to take from Ateneo’s win over UP

Four points to take from Ateneo’s win over UP
by rick olivares

The final score of 96-82 doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. It was a close match. Although Ateneo wrested the lead around halfway through the fourth period, it was only in the last two minutes where they seized control of the game.

You have to give a lot of credit to UP for coming out with fire and purpose. They played hard and even wanted the ball a bit more than the slower Blue Eagles. Ateneo showed their nerve and verve during crunch time as they took their 13th win in as many matches.

The Fighting Maroons fell to 5-8 with their final match of the second round against NU taking on greater importance (for both sides actually).

Here are six points to take from the game.

Live by the outside shot; die by the outside shot.
When the Fighting Maroons are on fire they can be awesome to watch. Unfortunately, they seem to jack up a heavy volume of treys. They have taken 344 attempts from LaLa Land. That’s 6 more than UE and 10 more than La Salle.

Unfortunately, for them, they are shooting only 29% from that range. Fifth-best in the league or fourth worst depending on how you look at it.

When they defeated La Salle in the first round, they hoisted 35 shots from three-point range making 16. In the return encounter in the second round, they attempted 32 times in a loss.

Obviously, it is a big part of their offense. Unfortunately, for them, the law of averages caught up with UP. Against the Blue Eagles, they shot a blistering 50% from three-point range in the first half (8-16), then 3-15 in the second (20%).

When they stopped making their shots, they began to force the issue resulting in even more misses. But Ateneo just tightened up their defense beginning the fourth period and more so in the final five minutes of play.

On the other hand, Ateneo was 4-9 in the second half with their flurry including two deadeye treys from Isaac Go coming late that broke the game wide open.

Thirdy Ravena played great defense on Paul Desiderio.
Ravena (and Mike Nieto when the former was on the bench getting a rest) played great defense on Paul Desiderio who scored only 3 points in the second half. Ravena denied him possession and good looks at the basket. You could see the frustration on Desiderio's face especially late in the game when the ball wasn't going to him with the shot clock winding down.

With Desiderio not scoring, the Blue Eagles then put the clamps late in the game with two blocks and two steals. They really broke away late in the game.

As for Ravena, despite a poor shooting day, his stat line was pretty good – 10 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and 1 block versus 4 turnovers.

Matt Nieto has been spectacular for Ateneo.
Remember Edward Woodward’s TV show, The Equalizer? Well, Nieto is close. He’s actually the stabilizer. The offense is steady when he’s quarterbacking and the engine runs close to perfect. Plus, he hits big shots.

Look at those free throws and compare his form to last year’s form. Look at the balance and where he gets the power and accuracy in his shot. What a transformation!

What an incredible job by the bench.
That was quite a lift gsiven by Ateneo’s bench that collectively poured in 49 points to the 29 of the Fighting Maroons. Now to be particular, Gian Mamuyac who tallied 13 points and 2 rebounds in close to 18 minutes of play; Isaac Go also finished with 13 points and 4 boards; and Mike Nieto who chipped in 9 points. All of them were huge especially down the stretch when they had to repel a last charge by UP.

All season long, their selfless team play has gotten them out of jams and propelled them to wins. Even if Tyler Tio and Aaron Black didn’t score, they at least chipped in a rebound each.

And you really have to appreciate their nerves of steel. To wit, it was almost a bad day for Vince Tolentino who had a rough first half. But late in the game, he was solid on both ends of the court. Ditto for Raffy Verano had a couple of shocking errors again but the great thing about this kid, is how he comes back. It is the same for Tolentino. It’s not how you start but how you finish.

As for the UP Fighting Maroons, they have a very good young core who will use this season and learn much from it. The Gomez Di LiaƱo brothers have blown hot and cold too but man, they should really be good by next season. They are only losing three players but think of next year’s additions? Wow. But that’s a few months away (until the summer tourneys). Right now, they still have a chance to advance. It’s not going to be easy though.