2011-12 Citta di Roma Tournament Days 2-3
By Alexander Kaftan
69 Stella Azzurra-50 Dnipro
Much like Stella's first matchup against Gran Canaria, Dnipro had a tremendous height and strength advantage, and, unlike the hosts' first game, the Ukranians could actually shoot somewhat decently. To compensate for their height disadvantage, Stella began in a 2-3 zone. Despite this, Dnipro raced out to a big lead, and managed to sustain it until midway through the second quarter, as they utilized a tremendous rebounding advantage and intelligent, zone-bending ball-movement coupled with open looks and hot shooting.
After Dnipro's lead ballooned to 30-18, Stella went to a man-to-man defense with three and occasionally four guards, thus suffocating Dnipro's perimeter jumper-shooters. Despite being severally undersized, the hosts did not suffer under the basket, as Sergiy Zagreba, a skilled yet inconsistent 7'0" center, barely managed to touch the ball due to intense ball-pressure from Stella's guards, as well as an inability by both Dnipro's perimeter players to properly execute post-entry passes and Zagreba's poor angles when attempting to post-up. These tactical shortcomings persisted throughout; they even were unable to run a high-low when simultaneously playing their 7'0" and 6'10" posts.
Stella Azzurra used their superior guard play, which gave them impressive off-the-ball movement, passing, long-range jumpers, and aggressive drives by 6'4" shooting guard Mirko Turel and 6'1" combo-guard Yancarlos Rodriguez, separating themselves from Dnipro and winning comfortably, 69-50.
49 Virtus Roma-62 Maccabi Tel Aviv
Virtus Roma, by far the least talented team in the tournament, faced the second-least talented team in Tel Aviv; and while this game did not evolve into the prior day's Siena-Roma turnover-laden, forty minutes of hell--and not the Nolan Richardson-conceived hell--this game, due to a lack of overall ability from both sides, still was rather unpleasant. The only semi-interesting development was that Idan Zalmanson Maccabi's burly 6'10" center showed some ability to shuffle his feet and hit shots from three, which signals the potential to be a decent threat in the pick and roll and the pick and pop, though he needs to undergo a drastic change in his body composition, dropping forty or so pounds, and become far less turnover prone.
58 Virtus Siena-60 Fenerbahce
This game, essentially the semi-final of the tournament, as the undefeated eventual winner would play in the finals, was the best in the three-day event, including the championship. Both teams are well-rounded--relying on multiple players--and feature several potential NBA or Euroleague prospects. Furthermore, there were a host of interesting matchups, such as Istanbul stud James Birsen and Siena's Corrado Bianconi, a raw, skinny, athletic 6'8" wing with a high ceiling; Siena's skilled yet mercurial 6'9" 240 lbs. pivot Amedeo Tessitori and Fener's slashing power forward Ayberk Guleryuz; as well as Istanbul's fifteen-year-old pure point, Berk Ugurlu, with Siena's quicker and more experienced guards. Tessitori, who in the previous two games flashed unbelievable potential coupled with a penchant for bone-headed plays and lazy effort, especially on defense, actually exerted himself more in the "unglamorous"--and underrated--parts of the game, such as running the floor and showing better on screens, that oftentimes decides closely-fought games.
Sensing a heightened level of competition and a greater reward for triumphing, both teams were far more concentrated than in their previous two contests: defensive pressure had noticeably increased; previously timid players, such as Bianconi, exhibited talents that were evident yet absent in previous games; and, for the first time, we got to see both teams perform under intense pressure. After all, this essentially was the Euroleaugue Sweet Sixteen.
Even more so than the rest of the game, the fourth quarter bled intensity. Siena began consistently feeding the ball to Tessitori, who used his strength and nimble feet to maneuver around Istanbul's bigs en route to scoring approximately 14 fourth quarter points, four of which were off spectacular drives from Bianconi, who took off like a rocket from the left baseline, attacked the rim, waited for Tessitori's man to help, and dumped two perfect passes that went for two rim-rattling dunks. With 9.5 seconds left, and the score at 60-58 for Fenerbahce, the brilliance of the past quarter evaporated with Tessitori's biggest blunder, a show of arrogance so great that most coaches would have benched him for the rest of the game, without remotely positing his reentry. Tessitori was fouled, and would shoot two free throws. He missed the first, and looked to his coach for advice. Logically, Tessitori's coach told his pivot that with nearly ten seconds left, would be plenty of time make it a one-point game, foul, hope they miss, and then go for the game tying or winning basket. Instead hero-complex Tessitori decided to miss the second free-throw and go after the rebound immediately after the ball left his hands, which is an infraction at any level of basketball. The violation was called, and Fener were able to seal the win by breaking Siena's desperation press.
38 Dnipro-51 Gran Canaria
Despite both squads having decent individual talent, this game featured both low-quality point guard play and stagnant ball and man movement, and thus resulted in a high amount of turnovers, missed shots, and overall sloppy play. Tridon Makonda, an elite athlete even by NBA standards, again showed his rawness on the perimeter, at times rushing his penetrations, resulting in either traveling violations or the ball bouncing out of bounds; on other occasions, he moved to slowly, passing the ball a half-second too late, which also resulted in turnovers.
The only silver lining was that Mouhamed Barro, a decently athletic power forward with some potential to play the three, exhibited toughness on the glass, a tremendous motor on defense, and a developing offensive game, including a quick first step and solid court vision.
89 KK Zagreb-61 Stella Azzurra
More so than the final, this game wound up being the best setting to evaluate Zagreb's otherworldly talent, Dario Saric. In the previous games, when the whistles were somewhat questionable, Saric displayed great maturity and composure by simply playing on. In this instance, however, the referees were so egregiously one-sided that even a most-devout Buddhist monk would have been flustered; and, while Saric did complain, especially when collecting his many nonexistent traveling violations, as well as his equally nonexistent fourth and fifth fouls--which occurred midway through the third quarter with Zagreb up by twenty-two--a player whose ego matched Saric's talent would have erupted in a violent fit of anger. Encouragingly, this did not happen. Furthermore, while still in the game, Saric refused to allow the refs quick whistles to alter his attacking style-of-play. Predictably, the 6'10" point-center dominated every facet of the game. Stella, which normally shot well from all second and third levels, had their worst collective outing at the most inopportune time.
Due to further transportation difficulties, I was unable to attend the first two games.
78 Stella Azzurra-83 Virtus Siena
This was a nice opportunity to see the mental makeup of these players. Just about anyone can get an adrenaline rush before and during a big game; it takes a special mental composition to fight just as hard in a relatively meaningless setting, such as the end of a blowout or a contest for third and fourth places. In this, Siena's Corrado Bianconi, who had been so aggressive and impressive against Istanbul, played passively and indecisively, while Stella's Mirko Turel aggressively looked for his own shot, occasionally to a fault.
Yancarlos Rodriguez, Stella's talented yet unpolished combo guard, played more within himself, collecting 22 points on high percentages, while his teammate, point guard Nicolo' Basile, also shot well from deep, attacked the basket with success, resulting in nine free throws--though he connected on just two--and eight assists. The real difference, though, was Tessitori. On this level, he can be thoroughly dominate on offense, as few players have his combination of size, strength, and skill. He had 29 points on efficient shooting, with twenty rebounds, among them were nine on the offensive end. If he had a different mind--such as James Birsen's or Dario Saric's--he would likely be a a competent NBA-level player; with his current mental composition, he risks not even playing in Seria B.
The Final: 62 KK Zagreb-52 Fenerbahce
Dario Saric, dominant. The Croat, who would be just a high school senior in the States, played the entire game being Zagreb's primary ball-handler, distributor, shot-creator, rebounder, interior defender, and fast-break igniter. Despite being exhausted in the fourth quarter, he still gave a tremendous all-round effort, showing both the intangibles and the skill that could make him a star at the European and potentially NBA-level.
Istanbul's James Birsen, on the other hand, did not display Saric's same attacking mentality, settling for jumpers, including eight threes, while connecting on just one. While he does not posses Saric's quickness, he still had the agility and, especially, the intelligence to have been able to exploit Zagreb's zone defenses, where he could have taken short mid-range jumpers, instead of misfiring from long-range. He did, however, display good instincts on defense, guarding Saric fairly well when assigned to him, and collecting six steals and ten rebounds. While a humble and intelligent player, Birsen could take his game to the next level by being more aggressive, especially at the end of games. Fener was down just two points going into the fourth, and Birsen did not take over. Since he's just sixteen--and two months younger than Canadian Andrew Wiggins--he has time to develop a greater propensity to dominate.