With Fajardo out, title chase is wide open

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    THE sidelining of San Miguel Beer center June Mar Fajardo maybe for the entire coming season is sure to cause a shift in the balance of power in the PBA.

    The Beermen still have what it takes to live up to their self-imposed expectations and be among the chief contenders for each conference, particularly in the Philippine Cup where they are gunning to stretch their league record to six straight titles.

    But the other teams are now in the mix when it comes to talks about which could be crowned champion, particularly in the season-opening all-Filipino conference that kicks off March 1.

    Even before Fajardo suffered his shin injury last Monday and underwent operation the day after, some team governors have already talked about the evolution of the other teams from also-rans to being more competitive.

    “Teams are improving. The so-called underdogs before are really playing (well) and winning. That’s something not usual. Teams are improving and hopefully that includes us,” said Phoenix Pulse governor Raymond Zorilla.

    “The competitiveness of the teams is improving,” said Columbian’s Bobby Rosales. “By and large, the competitiveness of the league has improved.”

    Phoenix has indeed shown it should be a power to be reckoned with, topping last season’s Philippine Cup eliminations.

    Should the indefinite suspension slapped on Calvin Abueva be lifted and he is allowed to play anew, fans can expect the Fuel Masters to be among the favorites.

    NLEX also topped the Governors Cup eliminations, only to be waylaid in the quarterfinals by a surging NorthPort.

    But the two import-laced conferences all depend on what kind of reinforcement each team gets and the biggest prize remains the Philippine Cup.

    Ginebra, in particular, has laid bare its intention of going for the all-Filipino title right after its Governors Cup triumph last month and now appears the favorite with a towering frontline anchored on Japeth Aguilar and Greg Slaughter.

    Magnolia, which wound up runner-up to SMB the last two seasons, should also be crowding the favorites, even though coach Chito Victolero prefers to downplay his Hotshots’ chances.
    Ditto for TNT and Meralco.

    No little thanks to the acquisition of Christian Standhardinger and the return of the now-healthy Bradwyn Guinto and Kelly Nabong, the Batang Pier should also be seriously considered as contenders.

    But before anybody forgets SMB is the defending champion and, to paraphrase former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovic, nobody should underestimate the heart of one.

    Coach Leo Austria is calling on his remaining charges to show theirs. As players, as warriors, as athletes, you have to think that a lot of things could change and for us, we have to step up,” he said after practice last Wednesday.

    “The motivation is there for the players,” added Austria.” It’s really tough for us…but I still believe na itong mga players will step up. What we’ve seen in the last two days, nag-respond sila. I’m still positive dahil maganda ang response ng players.”