|Head Coach Massimiliano Menetti and Reggio Emiliahave been one of the surprise outfits in this year's EuroChallenge|
By Dimitris Kontos
Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia could very well be labelled as one of the three surprise EuroChallenge quarter-finalists, alongside Royal Hali Gaziantep and Ural Ekaterinburg.
It's true that the Italian club is not as young as the Turkish and Russian sides are and has even taken part in European competitions previously, as recently as 10 years ago.
It's also true that players of the magnitude of former Italian internationals Nando Gentile and Gianluca Basile, and legendary-in-Europe Americans such as Bob Morse and Joe Bryant (Kobe's father), have worn Reggiana's jersey at one time or another.
But the fact remains that, just two seasons ago, Reggio Emilia could have easily slipped into oblivion or even disappear completely, as has been the case with several storied Italian clubs in recent years.
Instead, not only they earned promotion to Serie A but got into the league's play-offs and secured a spot in the EuroChallenge during the first season of their return to the Italian top flight.
Last week, they knocked out the 2011 EuroChallenge champions Krka Novo Mesto to advance to the play-offs of the competition upon their return to the European stage.
A driving force behind this success story has been 41-year-old head coach Massimiliano (Max) Menetti, who made his first professional steps at Reggiana, took over the reins of the team in 2011 and has linked his name to their continuous rise since then.
"In September, Reggiana celebrates the first 40 years of its history and all of this time has practically been divided between first and second division," Menetti said when fibaeurope.com asked him to put his team's 2014 campaign into perspective.
"Two years ago we were playing in Legadue (Italian 2nd division) but the club continued to invest heavily, especially on the youth team, because it was an ambitious club that wanted to grow again.
| Menetti laying down the law|
"Two years later, we're now back playing in Serie A, as well as in a European competition, with a roster that has five players which come from the youth team, just like the head coach does.
"Our club is what we call 'a white fly' in Italian.
"We are the only ones that develop young players and make them play in the senior team.
"There are plenty of other clubs in Italy that invest on youngsters, but then these players never see action with the first team.
"The problem is the mentality of club owners and front offices, who judge the work of a coach game by game, quite literally, leaving no space for long-term projects."
| Menetti explains that the players were involved in the decision for the club to compete in Europe |
The biggest fear of a newly-promoted club is relegation and it seems like a very bold decision to put on the added weight of a European competition just one season after its return to the domestic first division.
Yet apparently Reggio Emilia did not even blink when the opportunity arose, even though they had just stood on their feet again.
"It was a decision which we took last summer together between the club administration and the coaching staff," Menetti recalls.
"The players were also involved, because they had expressed the will to compete in Europe.
"The EuroChallenge looked like a good idea on paper then and it has proved even better in practice.
"We have since discovered that it is a high-level competition, it is very demanding, despite the fact it is not very well-known in Italy."
"On the one hand it gives a sense of prestige and importance to our work, and on the other it motivates a team likes ours even more.
"Both my coaching staff and myself are young and we relish the challenge.
Is the challenge however so demanding that it makes it hard to play two games a week with a relatively short roster?
"Not really, this is mostly a question of attitude and preparation, both physically and mentally," the Italian coach replied.
"Once the team enters the routine of travel, practice, game and then travel again you reach a point that it all depends on the motivation and the seriousness of the team.
"Last season the Italian play-offs were done in best-of-seven series and we had to play every two days, but you need to overcome the fatigue."
MAGIC REALISM AGAINST SAMARA
|Michal Ignerski and Krasnye Krylia will pose a difficult barrier for Reggiana to overcome in the quarter-finals|
Reggiana's home arena, PalaBigi, has a capacity of 3,500 fans and Reggio Emilia is a modest-sized city, by Italian standards, yet Menetti's team can count on one of the most dedicated fan bases in Italy, with several fans travelling to away games.
"At first, this season had the feeling of discovery for our fans, just like for the team, since it was sort of our debut in Europe," Menetti said.
"Our good results gradually sparked enthusiasm and naturally the victory in Novo Mesto (vs. Krka) created a festive atmosphere.
"The games in the play-offs next week will definitely be sold out and this support from our fans makes us believe that we can maintain our home court as a fortress."
Reggio Emilia are now facing a quarter-final play-off series against no less than reigning EuroChallenge champions Krasnye Krylia.
"We have knocked out the champions of 2011 and now we are facing last year's champions, so to reach the Final Four through this route would be really an extraordinary thing," Menetti said.
"Just the fact they (Krasnye Krylia) won it last year says a lot in itself, they have great players, a great coach and the city itself, Samara, is a metropolis.
"They have the identity of a club that is in this competition to win it.
"We will put into it all our determination and all the desire of a débutant and we hope to come up with one more big surprise."
|Oleksiy Pecherov has recently added height to the Krasnye Krylia roster and will provide a challenge for Reggiana on the glass|
Reggio Emilia are not the strongest team on the glass and Krasnye Krylia have a perceived advantage in the frontcourt since the arrival of Polish international Michal Ignerski and Ukrainian international Oleksiy Pecherov, but the Italian coach does not seem concerned.
"Whatever tactical challenges we pose to each other, we will find out on the court," Menetti explained.
"Obviously both teams will look to impose their preferred style of basketball while the tension and importance of this kind of game will also play a big role.
"So I believe the difference in this series might be in minor details."
One point of view would be that Reggiana have already achieved their primary objective this season and advancing to the Final Four at the expense of the Russian EuroChallenge holders would be a stretch too far.
"Our initial objective was to pass the first round (regular season), and we actually qualified top in our group," Menetti said.
"Once we accomplished that, we said we would try to make the play-offs, and now we're in there too.
"At this point, naturally, we are dreaming of making the Final Four.
"For a club that was playing in the second division not so long ago, to be in the Final Four of the EuroChallenge would really be a magical thing."