On Saturday afternoon, with four weeks left before the upcoming Eurobasket (European Championships) in Belgrade, the Athens Olympics Silver Medalists Italy matched-up with one of Europe's most talented and promising young squads, Croatia in a tournament in Italy.
The National Team of Italy, for some an ugly, three-point jacking, defensive oriented team, has been highly underrated over the past couple of years, as their coach Carlo Recalcati is continuously criticized for not inviting some of the best offensive players in the country in Carlton Myers, Gregor Fucka and Andrea Meneghin. Two years ago, however, a focused Italian team surprised everyone by exceeding all expectations and finishing 3rd in the last edition of Eurobasket tournament (this time in Sweden) and earning an unexpected ticket to the 2004 Olympic Games.
Nobody liked that, especially since the team's stars, veteran guards Gianluca Basile, Massimo Bulleri and Gianmarco Pozzecco, forward Giacomo Galanda and centers Denis Marconato and Roberto Chiacig were not considered especially impressive or spectacular as European players at the time. They were either not quick, athletic, young or big enough to be considered NBA prospects. According to some, they weren't even the most talented players in their own country. They were just experienced players in the Euroleague, who were taught to play for the team, tighten their defense when needed and patiently spread their offensive game to earn a basket. When asked, they knew how to lead their team to success. They knew how to change a game quickly with a short, but deadly explosion of team offense and defense that is capable of suddenly overwhelming a team short on chemistry, like the US almost exactly a year ago, or Croatia today.
As a result, the same team, one year later managed to beat some of the best teams in the world before and during the Olympics in Athens. The aforementioned Americans by 17 in an exhibition game, the eventual gold medalists Argentina in the preliminary round and Lithuania in a memorable semi-final, all fell to the shockingly effective Italian team. The Azzurri ended up making it to the gold medal game, where they fell to Argentina, but went back home as heroes for taking the Silver medal and finishing ahead of the Americans and every other European team.
So on Saturday, this team full of overachievers, which has managed to shut many mouths during the past two years, entered the court to play Croatia, a team full of past, present and future NBA talent. The Croatians feature three NBA players in Utah sharpshooter Gordan Giricek
, Orlando's Mario Kasun
, and New Jersey's Zoran Planinic
, who was not used at all. Also on the roster are the heralded Roko Leni Ukic (drafted this summer by Toronto) and Real Madrid swingman Marko Tomas
who is considered a first round prospect for the future, to go along with ex-Chicago Bull Dalibor Bagaric
. Croatia's best player however is big man Nicola Vujcic of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who has repeatedly rejected NBA offers in order to remain a top player in Europe.
The game started with Croatia dominating. Toronto's draftee Ukic, a smart, tall PG, whose name became famous when he decided to snub NBA in order to sign a long year term with Tau Vitoria, was running the offense wonderfully. Being an excellent slasher and passer, he fearlessly used his size to step in and either finish or take advantage of Bagaric's and Vujcic's good touch and offensive dominance. With Giricek and back-up Bazdaric knocking down their open-shots and the big men playing smoothly together, Croatia had an easy task, embarrassing the highly respected Italian defense in the process. Up to point, Italian coach Recalcati was using many different offensive systems and many young players, in order to notice what his team's weaknesses were, but when he saw Croatia acting like it was a real game for the Eurobasket, Italy decided to turn it on.
In the first half, Croatia was leading by as much as 14 and ended up by 7, before extending their lead again early in the 3rd period. Playing in front of an Italian crowd and having already lost their first exhibition game for the tournament to lowly Latvia, Recalcati and his players seemed to have decided to show Croatia who the boss is. It didn't take more than two or three minutes and the Italian veterans, the same ones who finished 2nd last year in Athens, tied the score. They were suddenly pressing on defense, Bagaric and Kasun were terrorized by their opponents, Galanda repeatedly made 3-pointers in transition and 32-year old Pozzecco was owning Ukic in a way that made the kid look lost on both ends of the floor. Ukic and Marko Popovic's terrible ball distribution and unnecessary shot attempts, along with the nervous break down of the Croatian frontline, gave the recently undrafted Stefano Mancinelli
a chance to shine. Mancinelli clearly came into this game with a chip on his shoulder after him and fellow Italian national team member Angelo Gigli
(who also played well) surprisingly went undrafted. Manicelli ran the floor like a mad man and scored four field goals (all thunderous dunks or alley-oops) in a short stretch that will all undoubtedly make the Italian Sportscenter (if such a thing existed) top 10 list for the week, as well as one three pointer. The energy he brought to the floor and the lift he gave his team and especially the crowd were huge factors in helping the Italians put the game away.
The Italians do not have the star players that almost every contending team (and there are many this year) at this year's Eurobasket has. As we've learned time after time in International basketball, though, that isn't always necessary in order to achieve results. Italy plays the game like a true team thanks to their intelligent and highly unselfish ball movement from side to side, the chemistry the players have established playing with each other for many years, and the fierce team defense they play which essentially shuts down the paint and forces the opposing team to patiently move the ball around until the open man is found. Any team that wants to beat the Italians will have to match their intensity on the floor and also come up with a gameplan to counter the sophisticated tactics that highly respected Coach Carlo Recalcati brings to the table every single game.
Italy managed to pump up the lead to as much as 17 points before taking their foot off the gas at the end of the game. The Croatians, as well as basketball fans around the world who watched this game, should realize that talent and potential might not be enough to have medal hopes in an International Competition like this year's Eurobasket. There are many teams like Italy and you don't want to meet them in a knock-out game, even if you are a deep, skilled, athletic and talented team such as Croatia.
For Italy, Chiacig finished as the top scorer with 14 points (6/6) while Pozzecco contributed 12 and Galanda, Manicelli and Calabria chipped in with 11 points each. Gordan Giricek
led the Croatians with 16, with Bazdaric contributing 14.