MANILA, Philippines -- With just a few days to go before the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers, there are some concerns emanating from the Gilas Pilipinas camp.
Two members of the pool, Matt Nieto and Dave Ildefonso, have been ruled out of the competition that will be held in Clark, Pampanga due to injury. Nieto, expected to be the team's starting point guard, suffered a broken hand, while Ildefonso is dealing with a bone bruise in his foot.
Losing Nieto is a particularly tough blow, according to Gilas Pilipinas program director Tab Baldwin.
The steady floor general has played in all three of the Philippines' qualifying games. After tallying two points and six assists off the bench in a 100-70 win over Indonesia in February 2020, Nieto started in both of their games against Thailand last November.
In the second window, he averaged eight points and four assists, as the Philippine team composed of cadets swept Thailand, 93-61 and 93-69.
"(Losing Matt) created a great leadership void in the team and it's very difficult to fill," Baldwin said.
Nieto played for Baldwin at the Ateneo de Manila University, where they won three UAAP championships together. Upon his graduation, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) selected Nieto in the special round of the PBA Rookie Draft in 2019, making him a full-time member of Gilas Pilipinas.
According to Baldwin, Nieto offers a lot of intangibles for the national team that will not be easy to duplicate even by their other talented players.
"Matt is not just a vocal leader, he's not just a tough guy, we really get a lot of our competitiveness as a team from him," Baldwin explained.
"He's a fierce competitor who hates to lose and that's contagious in a team environment. We have other players who are competitive but they don't have quite the drive and they don't have the contagious nature that Matt has," he added.
With Nieto injured, a pair of young point guards will now have the chance to prove themselves in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers, where the Philippines will play three games.
Ateneo's SJ Belangel and Far Eastern University's RJ Abarrientos will be called upon to organize the offense for Gilas Pilipinas in their games against South Korea on February 16 and 20, and Indonesia on February 18.
"SJ and RJ are both grooming themselves. They've both accepted the role of being leaders," said Baldwin.
From a leadership standpoint, however, Baldwin said the team will have to do so "by committee."
"I don't think there's anyone who could really step into that role in the same way that Matt did," said the coach. "Certainly we still have his brother Mike here, who's a vocal leader and who creates a lot of positive culture for us but on the court it's not the same when Matt is there with the ball in his hand."
Baldwin is also hoping that Dwight Ramos will continue to embrace his responsibilities as a leader.
The Ateneo recruit had a breakout performance last November, where he averaged 16.5 points and six rebounds in two games, while shooting nearly 65% from the field.
"With Dwight Ramos, it's still a wish for us. He still has a personality that isn't vocally oriented and it's got to change. It's a drum we've been beating, he's changing slowly so it is what it is," said Baldwin of Ramos.
"He knows that's his job. There are guys who are going to do the job but they won't do it the way Matt did it."
The Philippines are unbeaten in Group A of the qualifiers with a 3-0 record, and another victory will assure them of the spot in the FIBA Asia Cup that will take place in August in Jakarta, Indonesia.