2011-12 Citta di Roma Tournament Day 1
By Alexander Kaftan
54 Virtus Roma-63 Fenerbahçe Istanbul
The inaugural game of Città di Roma was slow-paced with many turnovers. Fenerbace had far superior talent--the best in the entire tournament, but committed many end-line infractions, travels, and unnecessary fouls on both offense and defense due to over-aggression under the basket. The talented Azberk Guleryuz was especially culpable. Despite their sloppy play, they were always in control of the game, and for lengthy junctures they attempted to diversify their offensive repertoire against the severely overmatched Romans. Especially impressive was James Birsen, a 6'9" point-forward (1995 born) with a great frame, fairly long arms, and an unbelievable skill level. He simultaneously functions as their starting shooting guard and backup point guard while rebounding with the tenacity and instincts of a center. And now for a quick rant: Virtus Roma's youth teams are abysmal, so much so that Rome's most promising prospects hardly ever are in their system, preferring teams from the central-north and north, or Stella Azzurra, the host of the tournament. The preference for Stella Azzurra is the most damning evidence of Roma's ineptitude; unlike Roma, the tournament hosts do not give their top players the chance to play with a Seria A senior team; despite this, they consistently field by far the best team in the city. In some years, Virtus even lags behind Eurobasket, a squad from l'Eur, a neighborhood in southern Rome. Instead of investing in the four-million inhabitants in the Roman metro area, Virtus has preferred to sign one-year publicity stunts, such as Brandon Jennings. Small wonder the franchise is in tatters, while Fenerbace, whose youth teams have several high-level Euroleague or NBA prospects, has consistently trended upwards.
64 KK Zagreb-57 Dnipro
Zagreb features the best player in the tournament, as well as one of the best 1994-born players in the world, in Dario Saric. Dnipro, a team from the Ukraine, had a tremendous physical and height advantage over Zagreb, with centers that measured 6'10" and about 260 pounds, and 7'0" and approximately 240 pounds. Those two weren't their only muscular athletes; it's apparent that Dnipro emphasizes weight-training, as their entire team had impressive strength. For the first five minutes of the first quarter, Zagreb, which brought a short team that, save Saric, lacked offensive firepower after not bringing promising 1995-born Mario Hezonja, depended entirely on Saric to generate and score on offense as well as his 6'10" height on defense, where he essentially played center and grabbed double-digit rebounds every game, including this one. Things began to change after a timeout by Zagreb: ball-movement improved, off-the-ball cuts became sharper, and Saric looked to become a generator on offense, rather than the dominant scorer he easily could have been. Zagreb definitively took the lead in the second quarter, and essentially traded buckets the rest of the way. Despite never being down by double-digits, Dnipro never seemed to be in striking distance. Had they crept to within five or six, Saric would simply have taken over. This situation never arose, enabling them to play team-oriented basketball, with Saric encouraging his teammates implicitly by feeding them the ball, and explicitly by vocalizing his approval with great frequency.
64 Maccabi-84 Virtus Siena
Maccabi's youth team, at least this rendition, falls far short of their senior team's habitual greatness. They lacked talent and cohesion, and got burnt repeatedly by Amedeo Tessitori's identically-executed baseline spin-move, which resulted in three powerful dunks and several free throw attempts. They also gave up about a dozen open looks from three, as they were later in rotating. Though Siena won, their victory is attributable to the significant talent-gap between the two teams, as they too committed many foolish turnovers, missed several easy buckets, and had a series of dumbfoundingly idiotic plays--the most egregious of which occurred when Tessitori dunked in a teammate's would-be "and one", thereby negating the basket--that a competent adversary would not have forgiven. Despite their lapses, Virtus Siena clearly has a solid team, with at least three or four interesting young players that have upper-Euroleague to NBA potential
78 Stella Azzurra-68 Gran Canaria
A stark contrast in playing styles emerged even before tipoff, as both teams had distinct strengths and weaknesses. Gran Canaria featured four African imports; three of which were athletic 6'7"-6'8" combo forwards, while the fourth, a lanky 6'10" center with endless arms, seemed poise to intimidate their much smaller opponent. Despite not having anyone above 6'7", Stella Azzurra warmed up with more urgency, and made an endless barrage of threes. To most spectators, this game would be a blowout in favor of Gran Canaria. The game's first few minutes seemed to confirm this notion; Gran Canaria's tremendous physical advantage overwhelmed Stella Azzurra. After just four minutes, the Spaniard's momentum was abruptly halted by two factors: Stella going to a 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone, which exposed the rawness of the Africans as well as Gran Canaria's lack of a competent distributors, and a hefty home court whistle--the hosts had a twenty-five to six free-throw advantage--allowing Stella's shorter bigs to be butchers under the basket, which thereby neutralized Canaria's height advantage. Led by four heady, Division I caliber-guards, Stella managed to calm down, move the ball better, sink their open looks, force turnovers by playing opportunistically, and wound up blowing the game open.
53 Virtus Roma-75 Virtus Siena
My only note for this game was "INGUARDABILE", which is Italian for "UNWATCHABLE". Holy cow did this one stink. There was a chasm-sized difference in talent, height, athleticism, skill, everything. Despite this, both teams played unbelievably sloppily; I had not seen such horrific sloppiness since my sister's first-ever "real" game in fifth grade, which ended 2-0 for the opposing team. Hyperbole aside, this game stunk.
59 Maccabi Tel Aviv-65 Fenerbahçe
Despite having far more talent, Fener found themselves trailing 34-24 at halftime, after having shot poorly and played passively. On the other hand, Maccabi played with confidence and enthusiasm, and connected on an especially high percentage from three. Maccabi could not sustain their hot shooting after Fener increased their defensive pressure, scoring just eight third-quarter points. The team from Istanbul took the lead for good early in the fourth, with James Birsen taking control of the game, functioning as Istanbul's point guard even when their primary ballhandler was playing. He used his solid quickness and extremely high basketball IQ to penetrate and zip timely passes to teammates, as well as shoot ten free-throws, though he connected on just five of them. While fifteen year-old pure point guard Berk Ugurlu had a poor shooting performance--possibly due to him playing shooting guard as Brisen manned the point for long stretches--he stood out with his decision-making, creativity, defensive intensity, and positive attitude. He already is 6'3" with broad shoulders, he has an underdeveloped and pudgy physique, as well as a boyish face, which indicate that he could grow another two inches, trim the excess fat, and add a good deal of muscle while gaining quickness. It's somewhat frightening to conjecture what he could be like in two years, his last at the junior level.