National University has been a favorite whipping team in the UAAP men’s basketball for as long as I could remember.
When I started my sportswriting career in 1997, the Bulldogs were fortunate to win two or three games in one season.
The team had two collegiate stars then in Danny Ildefonso and Lordy Tugade.
But their presence hardly changed the fortunes for NU, which remains an also-ran ballclub.
In 2001, NU made it to the Final Four for the first time in the school’s history (and its first since the Final Four format was introduced in 1994), behind coach Manny Dandan and a rag-tag crew of veterans Jeff Napa (now an assistant coach in the seniors team), Chico Manabat, Bryan Tolentino, Archen Cayabyab, undersized big man Alfie Grijaldo and Gilbert Neo.
Although the Bulldogs bowed to the Ren-ren Ritualo-led La Salle Green Archers in the playoffs, that season proved to be the school’s “golden moment” after being in the doldrums for decades.
What’s remarkable back then was, the Bulldogs were able to do make it to the Final Four despite meager budget for player recruitment and minimal allowance for their varsity players.
But when business taipan Henry Sy and the SM Group took over NU less than a decade ago, the Bulldogs have since improved leaps and bounds, not just in basketball, but even in other sports.
Forget about the “whipping boys” tag. Forget about chalking an easy win every time a UAAP school faces NU.
Bobby Ray Parks helped NU to two Final Four appearances, but the Bulldogs proved this season that they can still be winners even without the former UAAP two-time MVP.
This year, NU is a win away from advancing to the UAAP Finals for the first time since the school’s 1954-55 UAAP men’s basketball championship.
NU coach Eric Altamirano wasn’t even born yet when the Bulldogs won their only UAAP basketball title.
NU managed to stay alive and force a do-or-die game against top seed Ateneo following its thrilling 78-74 win in their Final Four match on Wednesday.
Come next week (Oct. 1), the Bulldogs will try to continue their historic drive for a championship with another victory against the Blue Eagles.
Will this be the year of the NU Bulldogs?