|24 April 2014|
|Szolnok head coach Dragan Aleksic thinks that the work on the offensive glass might be his team's advantage against Triumph |
The most open to predictions EuroChallenge Final Four since 2011 tips off on Friday evening with the semi-final clash between Szolnoki Olaj and Triumph Lyubersty.
While there is no runaway favourite for the title this year, unlike Besiktas in 2012 and Krasnye Krylia in 2013, there is still a team that stands out from the pack of contenders, if only for a specific reason.
The team to beat in Bologna is Triumph and their main strength lies in their offence, the most productive and efficient of all Final Four participants.
The Russian side not only scored an average of 79.1 points per game to reach the Final Four, they also needed only 59 field goal attempts per game to do so.
Triumph are also the best team in Bologna when it comes to three-point shooting, as they knock down 5.5 of their 14.4 triples on average.
It's not a lot; in fact they take fewer shots from beyond the arc than any other semi-finalist, because Triumph's productivity stems mainly from their up-beat tempo.
Their well-oiled transition game produces more open looks than an abundance of offensive possessions, because they tend to find the lane to the opposing basket unoccupied.
"We know that if we play a set-up game against CSKA [Moscow] or Khimki we have no chance, so we need to play hard defence and then run fast," Triumph head coach Vasiliy Karasev told fibaeurope.com on the eve of the semi-final.
"And in this Final Four we are ready to play the same way, we don't want to change something."
Karasev's opposite number, Szolnok head coach Dragan Aleksic, is among those who believe that Triumph's style reflects the credo of their coach.
"They play really fast on offence, I know [Vasiliy] Karasev likes this kind of play as a coach," Aleksic said.
"They play a lot with transition, they shoot threes and create pick'n'roll situations.
This is still a semi-final though and is more likely than not to go down to half-court basketball, where the opportunities to run the open court are few and far in between.
"[In half-court play] Triumph have a dominant center in [Milovan] Rakovic and when he is on the court they try to put the ball inside," Aleksic said.
"When he is not in, everything depends on their perimeter players."
|Sharp-shooter Courdon Higgins has been key to Triumph's run to the Final Four|
Among the second-leading scorer in this edition of the EuroChallenge and the fastest pistol in Bologna this weekend, winger Courdon Higgins who averages 18.2 points per game in the competition.
"He plays with a lot of confidence, he is a very good shooter, a fantastic shooter and very strong in duels," Aleksic said of the American sharp-shooter.
"He is the best perimeter player on their team, although since they have brought in [Evgeny] Voronov, he has taken balls away from him a little bit and it is a little bit different.
"Voronov is a very good and experienced player who starts a lot of one-on-one situations from outside.
"So we must focus on that on defence, on one-on-one situations, it might be the key to the game."
Another key aspect in every do-or-die game is the battle on the glass and it could prove to be Triumph's kryptonite on Friday.
It is the one statistical area where Szolnok have the clear edge as the Hungarians bring down 38.1 rebounds per game, more than any other semi-finalist.
"Yes, for sure, especially the offensive rebounds, we are really good in that this year," Aleksic agreed.
Szolnok average 11.2 offensive boards per game.
"In the games of Triumph I watched I didn't see them having any system for offensive rebounds and that could be our advantage in this game," the Serbian coach added.
"But it can also be a gamble to go on the offensive rebound because they are very good in transition, so we will see how this pans out."
Karasev however is not worried about his team getting out-muscled inside, but rather about them being out-witted by more crafty veterans.
"This [the rebounds] is not such a key thing," the Russian coach offered.
"They [Szolnok] have good shooters and they are maybe a bit more experienced than us.
"We have a lot of young players and this is the second tournament for us at such a high level.
"They play tough defence; they are really a very good team.
"They might not be top level, but they can beat anybody when they play well, a bit like us," Karasev concluded.
Experience will not be the only intangible quality at play in Friday's first semi-final. The other is the mental status of 12 players that had a little too much rest prior to coming to Bologna.
Triumph played their last game in the VTB United league regular season in late March.
They haven't played a single competitive game since then.
"This was very bad for us, it was terrible," Karasev asserted.
"We stayed one month without a game, I didn't know how to motivate the players.
"We arrive in the most crucial part of the season, the EuroChallenge Final Four and the VTB league play-offs, and we have no game rhythm.
"We played friendlies of course but that and practice is totally different.
"I can only hope that we are ready."