|20 July 2013|
|Eric Lombardi might not be the tallest player but he and his Italy teammates have dealt well with bigger opponents so far|
Italy head coach Stefano Sacripanti was a very happy man on Friday night in Tallinn, seconds after his team had clinched their passage to the semi-finals of the Sportland U20 European Championship.
His joy however was only owed to the fact that Italy had just prevailed in a dramatic overtime encounter against Lithuania and not, as many might think, because in Saturday's semi-final they will face, in Russia, a team which they had beaten by 18 points just three days previously.
"Russia is a good team, it will be a difficult game, a big game for us," Sacripanti told fibaeurope.com.
"They have big players, they have two players at every position and we have just played a late game that went into overtime and we are very tired right now."
Italy are the smallest team in the tournament, with just three players reaching two meters of height, while Russia are one of the biggest, with just four players below two meters.
Yet if the Azzurri have reached so far in this tournament, they must be doing something right.
In actual fact, when the two sides met last Wednesday on the final day of Second Round action, Italy did almost everything right, close to perfection to clinch their 88-70 victory.
The question in everyone's minds is whether they can execute the same game plan with such success against the same opponents for yet another 40 minutes - it might not be so straightforward.
In last Wednesday's game, Italy resorted to zone defence for pretty much the entire clash to keep Russia's big men as far from the rim as possible.
They defended as aggressively as they have done in every single encounter in Tallinn to come up with nine steals and force 20 Russian turnovers.
On offence, Italy were not always able to run in the open floor as much as they would have liked to, but they found an excellent solution in five-on-five situations as well, with their big men (who are in effect, either small forwards or power forwards) stretching the floor and hitting with good percentages from outside, rather than attempting to post up against much bigger opponents.
Sacripanti knows however that there is absolutely no guarantee that they can do all this all over again.
Russia are perhaps the most tactically disciplined team in Tallinn, a far cry from Russian sides in the U20 European Championship in years past, and every player seems to know his role at any given time.
In Friday's quarter-final against Turkey, their defensive coverage was excellent not only for a national team, which assembles every summer for a shot period of time, but good enough to make a club coach, who has his players available all season long, green with envy.
|Came up huge in Russia's quarter-final clash with Turkey: Denis Zakharov |
Italy have the second-best offence in the tournament, with 79.5 points-per-game and Russia are in third place, with an average output of 74.6 points-per-encounter.
Yet one cannot help but feel that on Saturday, only one of the two gladiators will score near or above their tournament average - the difference in size and, consequently, approach to the game, is so evident that ultimately one of the two styles of play might cancel the other out.
Aristide Landi was the star of the night for Italy in Wednesday's game, as he had led all scorers with 26 points; Aleksandar Gudumak had 16 points for Russia
Two players that might hold the key though to Saturday's encounter are Awudu Abass on the Italian side and Denis Zakharov on the Russian side.
Russia do not have a player that can match the all-round game of Abass, and his inside-outside play, with Vladislav Trushkin perhaps the one who comes closer.
Zakharov on the other hand is the instigator of all things good on Russian offence and, although Russia can count with a deep bench, his presence on the court always adds that bit extra of creativity and inventiveness to every play.