Monday, October 15, 2012

Kiefer's Curse

Most basketball die-hard fans have at one time or another heard of the Rookie of the Year curse. This belief holds that should a player perform head and shoulders above the rest in his freshman year, the next year will see a dip or no improvement to his performance. Gasp!
Last year it was won hands down by Ateneo guard Kiefer Ravena. He was also named part of the Mythical First Five selection. I purposely held my tongue in my cheek from the start of the 2012 Fil-Oil tournament throughout the whole of UAAP Season 75 lest I jinx the poor kid.
Here he is receiving both awards.

When he decided to play for the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the summer of 2011, there was much jubilation and fanfare in the Ateneo community. Here was a young man who has won 3 Championships in High School including 2 Finals MVP awards in his last 2 years about to join a recent 3-peat champion. He was playing basketball at a level beyond his years and he hoped to help continue the win streak. 
In his first college season he was getting entrusted with a lot of on-court minutes and had cracked the starting 5 of the team. You have to consider that this team had graduating players Emman Monfort, Kirk Long and Bacon Austria in the line-up, but he managed to prove himself time and again.

Here he is against UST Center Karim Abdul in their second encounter in the elimination round. A year later Kiefer will get to posterize this burly cameroonian with a spectacular one handed dunk. Wanna see the picture? read on... 
As a rookie he showed no new guy on the block "nerves". He managed to make a bigger impact than most players more senior to him. Here he is going on a drive against UAAP veteran Simon Atkins of DLSU.
He performed as well as expected during the elimination round, but the finals has always been his playground. He thrives on pressure no matter how great. Here are some numbers for his freshman year:

     Round       Mins.      Points       Rebounds       Assists
     Elims         27.8        13.6           3.54              3.0
     Finals        28.0        17.5            4.5               3.0

First some photos...Kefer in the 2011 Final Four game against UST... 
and in the finals against FEU...
He is always eager to learn the game, from his older team mates or his coaches...
Kiefer starting in game 2 of the finals against FEU, with center Greg Slaughter gesturing their prize for winning this game; Ateneo's fourth straight championship...
Yes, they prevailed, like all winners do. Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and in your team...
This was why I was so afraid of the Rookie of the Year curse. He had a great run in High School, helped his team get their fourth straight title in his first year with the Eagles. Maybe this was the year he had to eat humble pie.
In the last 3 years, those players who won this award had difficulties in their sophomore year:
Terrence Romeo (FEU)
   Year         Mins.          Points         Rebounds     Assists       Steals
    2010        19.76            8.0               2.59          2.12          0.65
   2011        30.8            10.23             3.92          3.23          0.85
Jeric Teng (UST)
   Year          Mins.          Points         Rebounds     Assists       Steals
   2009         23.33          11.33            3.07           1.53         0.8  
   2010         29.43          12.93            2.64           1.80         0.79
Ryan Buenafe (ADMU)
    Year          Mins.          Points        Rebounds      Assists      Steals
   2008          21.00           7.65             2.59           2.06       0.53  
   2009          18.19           7.13             3.25           2.0         0.94
What the numbers show us  it that these players had admirable numbers in their first season in the UAAP, but their follow-up season was flat. In the case of FEU guard Terrence Romeo, a highly touted player, his minutes greatly increased but the rest of his stat line did not.
Jeric Teng also saw an increase in his playing time, but his point production remained the same, and his rebounding also suffered.
Ryan Buenafe had some adjusting to do on his sophomore year. In some of the games he was playing point forward. This change in his role in the team affected his minutes and his scoring suffered. This crafty player's performance rebounded  the following season and his showtime performance in game 2 of the Finals against FEU will be remembered for some time to come. He is still considered the player with the highest basketball IQ in the college level today. He proved himself worthy of the point forward post in game 2 of the 2012 Finals against UST. How can you score 0 points and have a great game? By being trusted by the coach to play for 34 minutes and coming up with 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 giant steal in the dying minutes of the game. It's the intangibles that he brings that make him shine on the court.

I'm comparison to those guys, check out Ravena's first and second year averages at the UAAP:
   Year           Mins.          Points        Rebounds     Assists     Steals 
   2011          27.77          13.62           3.54           3.08       1.46
   2012          30.41          16.0             5.41           3.41       1.0
You can see that his scoring and rebounding improved. I was worried though when I saw him play in the Fil-Oil tournament, which preceeds the UAAP by a few months. Of course they were coming off a long lay-off and players are usually a bit sluggish during this time of year, but it was a cause for some worry.
    Year          Mins.          Points        Rebounds     Assists     Steals
    2012          28.5           9.70              4.8            3.3          1.4
What was troubling here was that his scoring production the year before was at 13 points per game, in 2012 it was down to 9.7. He was also playing the point guard position at times. This was understandable as the graduation of Emman Monfort and Kirk Long the year before left this position short of men in the rotation.
As the UAAP season started and progressed, his numbers started to pick up and by the second round of the eliminations he was back in stride. None more so evident than the game against UST in the second round of eliminations. Ateneo was struggling in the first half and turn-overs were the order of business. UST was the most probable team they would face the finals should they get to that level and they needed to win this game to gain that psychological edge later on. Ravena took it upon himself to try and get his team mates going. "The Dunk" by Kiefer towards the end of the 2nd quarter may have turned things around. After the game, he was asked about this posterizing dunk on a player almost half a foot taller.
He mentioned the low energy they had and he wanted to wake everybody up. When Juami Tiongson tapped the go ahead pass to him, he knew he was going to dunk the ball. Taking a quick took back, he saw who was after him and he knew he had to elevate and take it strong to the hoop or get blocked. In the end Karim Abdul was posterized in basketball history. The Blue Eagles got that shot of adrenalin and won the tightly contested and controversial game. This guy, though, would never bask in the limelight. He always gives credit to his team mates and stresses the concept they have always lived by: Team Ball.

Of note is that he played the last few minutes of this game in a lot of pain from a nasty fall that saw him land on the back of his head and from severe thigh cramps...but he gamely played on. He knew they needed him and a loss could have complicated matters in the team standings. They had to ensure gaining the twice to beat advantage in the F4.

Greg Slaughter, acting the concerned "big" brother and asking Kiefer if he was ok after he saw him wincing in pain a few moments before this photo was taken.
Right after the buzzer sounded to end the game Ravena collapsed in the floor in agony.

He still managed to make it to the post game conference with media and gamely answered questions with that ready smile he always has. Thank God the team had a 2 week respite so players could rest and recuperate.

So, no Rookie curse! Or was it going to rear it's ugly head in the playoff part of the season?
It certainly looked that way when Ateneo played historical "arch-nemesis" De La Salle for the right to gain entry into the championship round. Ateneo was coming off a two week break as the other teams wrapped up the elims and tie break games (OH, and the "replayed" game between NU and FEU). DLSU had just won an intense come from behind win in a do-or-die game against FEU to barge into the semis. There was also the issue of long time patron MVP cutting ties with the Ateneo that may have caused some distraction to the team.

Towards the end of the third canto, Kiefer was resting on the bench biding his time and watching the lead of La Salle balloon to 9 points, 47-38. He came in as the 4th quarter got underway and scored 12 consecutive points to help Ateneo get back in the game. In that quarter, he was involved in all of the points Ateneo scored as he also dished out several assists including the pass to Ryan Buenafe who converted a pivotal 3-point shot. His final stat line: 28 points (16 in the 4th), 12 rebounds and 7 assists (A double-double in a Final 4 game!). This performance is reminiscent of Le Bron James' Game 5 match against the Detroit Pistons in the '06-'07 NBA Eastern Conference Finals where he scored 29 of the last 30 points of the Cavaliers to win the game.

Coach Norman Black said of his prized ward's performance: “He just took over the game and that’s what great players do. They take over the game when the game is on the line".

Kiefer also hurt his elbow in the waning seconds of the game when he fell and landed on it. Again, its a good thing it wasn't serious. They were headed for Finals history.

Like I said earlier, Kiefer loves a big game and it doesn't get bigger than a finals series with a 5th consecutive championship on the line. Let us compare his finals numbers from his last two years:

Finals Averages:
     Year          Mins         Points         Rebounds      Assists
     2011          28.0         17.5               4.5             3.0  
     2012          35.0         17.5               6.0             4.0
As usual, he played his heart out in the Finals series against UST. In the second game, a must win game, he scored a game-high 22 points. In one of the last plays of the game he emulated MJ in a drive, stop and pop-up jumper from the side of the key-hole that gave his team a comfortable margin (he did the same in game 1). Kiefer helped exorcise the ghost of 2006, a heartbreaking loss for the Ateneo and Coach Norman against a seasoned UST quintet, and added to his growing legend.

After the on-court festivities died down, the Blue Eagles headed to their locker room to celebrate; leaving Coach Norman Black, Finals MVP Nico Salva and Kiefer in the media room to answering questions from the press. Each time the door opened, the shouting, laughing and hooting could be heard from across the corridor and more than once Nico and Kiefer would look at each other longing to be a part of the celebrations they deserved to be in. They gamely gave the microphones and the cameras their attention, but their hearts were clearly with their team. As the questions continued, Kiefer was clearly getting distracted and he decided to amuse himself. When one reporter asked Coach Norman what he will miss most in the UAAP, Kiefer quickly answered "Me" with that impish smile he usually has. Wearly  waiting for the session to end, he then grabbed some of the food reserved for the media, clowned around with the mike in front of him and flashed the medal around his neck with 5 fingers held proudly up.

Season 76 of the UAAP will bring a number of changes for Ateneo. With a third of the players having used up their eligibility and a new head-coach there will be a lot of adjustments to get used to. One thing's for sure, a Junior Phenom with 2 championships under his belt will be there, ready to mix it up and will the team to victory.
Going back to Kiefer's Curse...There is no curse!
He had a great year and his performance was surely better than the last one. He seems immune from such things.

He is however cursed with phenomenal athletic ability and instinctive reflexes. Remember the no look touch pass to Salva in the F4 game against DLSU as he was falling down on top of Joshua Webb? That's Instinct! You just can't teach that!

He is also cursed with a friendly personality, a wicked sense of humor and boyish good looks that girls and go gaga over. His biggest curse, however, is being a winner. The pressure to keep on facing these challenges can build up expectations and can get to be a burden. It's a good thing he's got the broad shoulders and the mindset to carry them.

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