If you would ask them, the Far Eastern University Tamaraws might just break their championship spell this season.
"Kayang kaya na namin ngayon. Panahon na namin," last season's MVP Ryan Roose Garcia told Yahoo! Southeast Asia after two hours of grueling practice at the FEU Gym.
The Tamaraws, title favorites over the past two years only to falter when it mattered most, are going through rigid preparations for a battle against --- drum roll, please --- Ateneo de Manila, their Season 73 tormentors.
"Sila (Ateneo) yung may matagal nang sistema, mas sanay na," forward Aldrech Ramos said. "Pero all out kami ngayon kaya FEU ang mag-chachampion."
These are words that you probably won't hear from the former Smart Gilas standout last October, when the Tamaraws collapsed in a Game One rout and struck hard by a Ryan Buenafe dagger of a triple deep into the fourth quarter in Game Two.
Ramos, however, might have the reason to believe that the Morayta-based squad will bring home the coveted trophy the school has won 18 other times in history.
"Pride," Garcia said of what was lacking in that 2010 FEU team. "Yun yung kulang sa amin. Walang pride na manalo."
The five-foot-eight Zamboanga native stressed that they have "it" now. Plus, they have the same core of players that tore through the UAAP in the elimination round and walloped De La Salle University in the Final Four.
FAST BREAK, PRESSURE DEFENSE, BALANCED OFFENSE
Flashy guard Terrence Romeo, who won the Rookie of the Year award last year, says the Tamaraws are back with new weapons: fastbreak and pressure defense.
"Nag-improve talaga yung defense namin at yun ang biggest asset namin ngayon," Romeo shared. "At mas confident kami ngayon kesa last year."
It should be noted that FEU's deliberate half-court offense, however precise and well-executed it was during the regular season, had problems piercing through Ateneo's stonewall defense designed by Norman Black in the finals.
A head coach with UAAP championship pedigree might also be what the doctor ordered for the Tamaraws as Bert Flores, the architect of the Green and Gold's last crown in 2005, took over the helm after Glenn
Capacio resigned after the Season 73 debacle.
"He lets everybody express his game," third-year Cameroonian forward Pippo Noundou said. "Now, everybody can contribute. The win can come from anybody."
Noundou recounted last year, when they had an offense mostly centered on Garcia, who had to carry much of the scoring burden for the Tamaraws and was disappointed when the Eagles were able to lock him down in the Finals.
"It's not like we just need to get the ball and give it to RR for the pick-and-roll," Noundou added. "Now, the points come from everybody."
The FilOil Flying V Premier Cup, where FEU has toyed with the competition for nine straight wins, is a testament of the scoring balance this group of Tamaraws have.
Garcia leads the team with 13.3 points while Romeo and Noundou follow with 11.8 and 11.3 markers, respectively. Ramos and another ex-Gilas player, JR Cawaling, are not far behind.
"Hindi ko na kailangan umiskor ng marami para manalo kami," Garcia said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Ngayon kung sino ang mainit, siya ang susuportahan namin."
"Malakas pa rin kami," he emphasized.
Ramos, a member of the UAAP Mythical Five each of the past two seasons, takes pride in the team's deeper bench this season, with five rookies bolstering the squad.
Sure, they will be missing the inside presence of bruiser Reil Cervantes and the sniping and clutch shooting of Paul Sanga, but FEU will parade a bumper crop of freshmen including former under-18 national team members Mike Tolomia and Russell Escoto, NCAA Juniors MVP Gino Jumao-as and slam-dunking Cameroonian center Christian Sentcheu.
"Halos lahat ng players kaya umiskor, kaya dumepensa," Ramos said.
And while their rookies might not be as wildly-hyped as Ateneo's Kiefer Ravena and Greg Slaughter, and Santo Tomas' Kevin Ferrer, Ramos is confident that the kids will deliver. Add to that the fact that they will have a solid group of players to guide them, Ramos, Garcia and Cawaling included.
"Ang role ko talaga ngayon is i-guide yung rookies namin," Garcia shared. "Magaling sila at focus talaga naming lahat manalo."
With less than a month left before UAAP Season 74 kicks off with lavish festivities, Noundou says that they are around 80% ready to bring back the trophy to Nicanor Reyes St.
"We will play tough, play as a team. Maybe this is the year we're gonna make it," he exclaimed. "The championship is for us this year."
High expectations and unusual occurrences (read: Mac Baracael, Mark Barroca) have doomed what were supposed to be championship seasons for the Tamaraws the past couple of years.
But if you would ask them, FEU might just break that spell in Season 74.