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NLEX looms as D-League favorite again

NLEX, shown here at the Aspirants Cup, will have a virtually intact line-up. (Photo by Sid Ventura)

With a virtually intact lineup, it looks like the NLEX Road Warriors are favorites to bag their third consecutive D-League title when the 2011-12 Foundation Cup opens on Tuesday at the Arena in San Juan.

Nine other teams, led by Cebuana Lhuillier, will be out to spoil the Road Warriors' title aspirations, but looking at all the rosters, it appears they all have their work cut out for them. NLEX lost only big man Ford Arao and replaced him with Ateneo swingman Kirk Long, who was granted a special exemption by the D-League top brass to be able to play.

That means the Road Warriors, who easily won the first two league titles, will still have a loaded lineup that features collegiate stars Ian Sangalang, Calvin Abueva, Dave Marcelo, Eman Monfort, Garvo Lanete, and Borgie Hermida, plus the athletic Fil-Am duo of Cliff Hodge and Chris Ellis. FEU stalwart RR Garcia is still a question mark as of now, and if he returns, NLEX will be even more formidable.

While those championships were well-deserved, you can't help but wonder whether all this monotony is hurting the league in its crucial formative years. Since the D-League currently has no drafting procedure in effect, it's pretty much an open race to sign up blue-chip players. And in this set-up, it's not that difficult for a well-financed team like NLEX to lure the best players into its fold.

This has pretty much created a major imbalance that tends to take away some of the excitement of the league. Some basketball observers weren't all that thrilled to follow the D-League in its inaugural year because it was pretty clear from the start who would win it all. Hopefully a drafting system similar to the PBA's can be implemented soon to give the league more balance.

NLEX coach Boyet Fernandez, though, thinks things will be more competitive this conference, especially if Garcia becomes unavailable. "Yes, we're virtually intact but RR was not allowed by FEU this Foundation Cup."

Fernandez said they are still talking with FEU and hope to arrive at a win-win situation for everyone, while also tagging Big Chill as the team to beat. "With their new players, they are very solid," he said, referring to new Big Chill recruits Jeff Alvin Viernes,  Jamieson Cortez, Lend Mark Montilla, and Jess Mar Villahermosa who will teaming up with old hands Allan Santos, Raffy Reyes, and June Dizon. Big Chill was the only team that dealt NLEX a loss in the Aspirants Cup.

"Cebuana, RnW Pipes and Blackwater have all gotten stronger. It will take a lot of sacrifices and hard work on our part if we intend to defend our crown."

Cebuana Lhuillier, coached by Luigi Trillo, absorbed several players from Freego Jeans, which took a leave of absence this conference. They include point guard Lester Alvarez and wingmen Janus Lozada and Bacon Austria. The Gems still have Aspirants Cup MVP Vic Manuel, shooter Kevin Alas, point guard Simon Atkins, PBA draftee Pari Llagas, and forward Marvin Hayes.

As Fernandez noted, the other teams will also be parading new faces in hopes of turning around their fortunes. Leo Isaac's Blackwater Sports beefed up its frontline with the acquisition of Fil-Am Mark Jeffries and six-six Kelly Nabong, while RnW Pipes is bringing in UST coach Pido Jarencio and nine new players, including Tigers Jeric Teng and Paolo Pe and Adamson's Jan Colina.

Aside from Freego Jeans, taking a leave this conference are Cobra Energy Drink and PC Gilmore. Junior Powerade, one of the 13 original teams in last year's Foundation Cup, is back after skipping the Aspirants Cup. The Junior Tigers are the only school-based team seeing action, with 10 UP Maroons on its roster. Also seeing action for the team will be former Ateneo big man Jumbo Escueta and EAC center Claude Cubo.

Debuting this conference are the Cagayan Rising Stars, a team composed mostly of players from the north, and Erase Plantcenta, which will parade a mix of Mapua and Olivarez College players. Rounding up the 10-team field are Boracay Rum of Lawrence Chongson and Café France of Egay Macaraya.

E-mail: sid_ventura@yahoo.com. Twitter: @Sid_Ventura

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