Ateneo Blue Eagles starting point guard Matt Nieto suffered an injury on his little finger in their game against the FEU Tamaraws last Wednesday, October 10, 2018, at the Mall of Asia Arena. There’s isn’t a concrete timetable given Matt’s injury, but the Blue Eagles are optimistic he can return in no time.
For the meantime, it’s safe to assume the Blue Eagles aren’t willing to risk their star point guard’s health for the sake of some games. Think long term. Yet, missing a number of games in the UAAP might seem like an eternity, and the stakes are high considering that the second round is about to begin and teams are jockeying for positions in the final four. What does this mean for the Ateneo Blue Eagles moving forward?
What does Ateneo lose?
The Blue Eagles lose a veteran presence on the court, capable of scoring, distributing, and defending. Ateneo was leading by ten in the first half but quickly evaporated. While the defense was still good, the offense suffered due to a lack of presence and Tab Baldwin trying to find the right guard to plug the hole on the one spot.
What does Ateneo’s depth chart look like?
The usual guards backing Matt Nieto up are SJ Belangel, Jolo Mendoza, and Tyler Tio. Jolo Mendoza however will serve a better purpose as an off guard who gets his shots from screens and getting into positionwithout the ball on his hands. Tio was Tab Baldwin’s pick to start the game against UP, as he is the veteran point guard. SJ played reliever when Tio was off the floor against the UP Fighting Maroons, and did his best with the time that was given to him.
How will the offense play out?
Let us look at some possible lineups that can be made given the present depth chart.
If Ateneo fans were to be honest with themselves, they felt a pit in their stomach when it was announced that Tyler Tio will start the game. After playing a decent season 80, as well as an okay preseason, Tio seems to be stuck in a rut since the first game. He was a liability on defense, and he looked lost when running the offense. He gets his points, but his presence was detrimental to the system (see: ADMU-FEU round 1)
Once the game started, it was a totally different Tio on the floor. He was given more offensive freedom, and was controlling the tempo of the game. He did an admirable job on defense, covering Jun Manzo and Juan Gomez de Liano effectively. Offensively, he played an efficient game (12 points 5/9 FG, 5 ast, +19). He was more aggressive on both ends of the floor, commanded better spacing, and defended the lanes well. It was a far cry from whatever we have seen from him this season.
Lineup #2: Belangel-Asistio-Ravena-Verano-Kouame
This is the most logical combination as SJ Belangel is a pure point guard who runs the system competently. He is a pass-first point guard who can score at will when the need arises. He can also ably defend the opposing team’s point guard with efficiency. Tio and Mendoza can float as lead and off guards, depending on the situation. Mendoza can be the primary reliever for Anton Asistio while Tio plays off guard, and vice versa. This will ensure that the guards are fresh in the fourth quarter.
The downside of this lineup is that Belangel tends to over dribble during offensive possessions. This is not a knock on him, this is due to the fact that on-ball screens are hard to come by for Ateneo this season. Because SJ is waiting for a man to get open, the offense is stalled and the ball stays with the point guard for a long time. Also noteworthy is that Belangel is still not adept in handling double teams from the opposing guards, which might be expected from rookies. UP capitalized on this and doubled on SJ, as well as trapping him on the coffin corners, serving as a third and fourth defender. Ateneo solved this by having four people ready to receive the ball. In one possession, the Blue Eagles decided to go bold as they rifled a Hail Mary pass to their frontcourt to initiate a fast break. While this is very risky, it can lead to an easy two points when executed properly.
Lineup #3: Mendoza-Asistio-Ravena-Verano-Kouame
One thing is for sure: THIS BACKCOURT CAN REALLY SHOOT. The big men can set screens and the guards can shoot the lights out. Once defenses start keying in on the backcourt, Thirdy Ravena can carve some space with his slashing and Kouame can throw his weight around in the paint (actually, wherever he damn well pleases). Belangel can be the primary reliever at the point, while Tio plays both guard spots.
The main drawback of this lineup is that both guards are way better off-ball. While they are both decent ballhandlers, their true strength lies in their spot-up shooting. This can be solved by playing Ravena as a facilitator. This way, Mendoza and Asistio can come off screens and become scoring options. Thirdy can dump the ball inside to Kouame or Verano when a mismatch occurs, or he can take the shot himself.
This can also be a problem for pressing teams like La Salle and Adamson. Ateneo can employ an old tactic used by former champion coaches Joel Banal and Norman Black; by inbounding the ball to a forward and release some of the pressure on the guards. The forward has two options: either handing the ball off once Mendoza cuts toward him, or bring the ball down himself. Ravena and Kouame can act as receiver as both can handle the ball well, and can set very effective picks (read: big and strong).
What is next for Matt Nieto?
He has to recover. He does not need to rush anything and realize that injuries happen and recovery is part of the process. While seeding becomes crucial in the second round, he has some able backup. He just has to keep himself in game shape so that when he returns, it will be a smooth transition.