Leaders UP, NU battle capable foes UE and DLSU for solo lead

Games On Wednesday(Mall of Asia Arena)11 a.m. — DLSU vs NU1 p.m. — ADMU vs AdU4:30 p.m. — UE vs UP6:30 p.m. — UST vs FEU

PACESETTERS University of the Philippines (UP) and National U (NU) try to break locks with each other for a solo lead when they battle separate but capable foes as teams start to jockey for positions in the UAAP Season 85 men’s basketball tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Currently knotted atop the league with similar 4-1 cards, the Fighting Maroons and the Bulldogs clash with University of the East and La Salle, respectively, in the crucial duel among the top four teams so far nearing the end of the first elimination round.

Reigning champion UP takes on the  UE Red Warriors (3-2), the league’s most surprising team with a scorching start into the playoff picture thus far, at 4:30 p.m. as the red-hot NU collides with the Green Archers (3-2) at 11 a.m.

In between games of the loaded four-game bill, Ateneo (3-2) attempts to break out from an unfamiliar territory at the middle of the standings against Adamson (2-3) at 1 p.m. while struggling squads Santo Tomas (1-4) and Far Eastern U (0-5) meet at 6:30 p.m.

A string of vital duels it is for the UAAP with only two games left in the first round as only a game separates the league leaders from third to sixth spot.

As NU turned into a major force and rose to contender status with UP on top, UE after a winless campaign last season made heads turn and emerged as the darkhorse at No. 3 — even over La Salle and Ateneo — with Adamson and UST just lurking behind. Consistent semifinalist FEU, for its part, is suddenly kissing the cellar with no wins to show.

UP coach Goldwin Monteverde said it’s testament to the league’s even playing field and unpredictable outcome as his Fighting Maroons brace for an expected feisty encounter with the Red Warriors, who are on a two-game win streak for the first time in three years.

“…On our part, we’re focused on ourselves trying to improve every game. Against UE, we’ll definitely be prepared,” said Mr. Monteverde as UP kept mastery of Ateneo, 76-71, last weekend in a thrilling rematch.

The Bulldogs, riding on their own three-game streak as the hottest team in the league, preach the same mindset in a relentless prey hunting as they are out to prove their place on top of the UAAP food chain.

Standing in the leaders’ way are UE and La Salle, which came off big wins against Santo Tomas and FEU, respectively, to fill the Final Four so far following the sudden fall of Mighty Ateneo to fifth spot. — John Bryan Ulanday