Back in black - a closer look at Segafredo Virtus Bologna
MIES, Switzerland - The old empire has struck back. Virtus Bologna is back in Europe. By the time the confetti falls on our next champions, ten years will have passed since the Black V took the Eurochallenge title in 2009, and eighteen years since Manu Ginobili and Ettore Messina guided them to the Triple Crown (Lega A, Italian Cup, and Euroleague) in 2001.
This storied club has had it's ups and downs over the years but fifteen Italian League titles, eight Italian cups, and three European titles, suggest there may have already been more ups than many other clubs could dream of. Then again, It would also be fair to say that every time we check the rearview mirror, many of those triumphs are steadily getting smaller on the horizon.
Virtus Bologna's fans put the club on everyone's basketball bucket list
Still, as the club accelerates on down the road to recovery since their return to the Italian Lega A and now Europe in the Basketball Champions League, there is a genuine feel around the club, that the next triumph may not be too far away. We spoke to new Head Coach Stefano Sacripanti about what it means to lead Bologna back into Europe and how he feels about his new squad.
Welcome back to the Basketball Champions League! Our fans will know you from Avellino in the first two years of the BCL. Do you feel your experience of the competition can help you guide this squad in Bologna?
"First of all, I want to say that the BCL is a great competition. I also believe that the importance of the competition has increased a lot with the excellent quality of the teams participating. When you play in the Basketball Champions League, you play against so many different systems and styles of play, but I hope that my experience of the competition can help the team stay focused."
With your knowledge of the competition, what are your ambitions for the team coming into the season? And what do you think will be some of the biggest challenges ahead?
"We are fighting for a place in the top four of our group and to reach the Play-Offs. But we are also aiming to reach the Play-Offs in the Serie A and the Final Eight of the Italian Cup. Those ambitions bring with them our biggest challenge - taking part in this kind of competition (BCL), at the same time as the Italian League is extremely tough mentally and physically. At the same time, more games can help the team find chemistry, as they solve all the problems and difficulties together."
Coach Sacripanti's comments may seem like guarded optimism, but he is of course, very correct in his desire to keep expectations grounded. The Black V only returned to the top league in Italy in the 2017/18 season, and whilst the manner of their comeback against Neptunas is cause for optimism, they have also just lost at home to Olimpia Milano. Coach Sacripanti spoke in the Italian media about his squad ahead of that Milano derby and described an "open construction site". He also credited the fans in Bologna for their ability to play "their game" despite being underdogs. It's already abundantly clear, that home advantage will play this season.
Those fans in Bologna are incredible. Can you talk about playing in front of them and is there is any extra privilege or pressure coaching in Basket City?
"Sure, coaching in Basket City is a huge incentive, this is a city where you can feel the passion for basketball, the fans are like a sixth player on the court. It's also a huge responsibility. Virtus Bologna is such an important and historic club."
This Virtus Bologna roster is already easy to like. And the body language they displayed throughout the Neptunas game - even whilst down as much as 15 Points - suggests they like each other too. There may be more expensive and potentially deeper collections of talent in the Basketball Champions League, but this is a roster that has been put together with a clear plan and all the pieces fit. Captain Qvale and Canadian Dejan Kravic provide the inside punch, with Filippo Baldi-Rossi as the pick-and-pop, stretch forward. Surrounding them is a collection of floor spacers and playmakers that all play multiple positions and all play with a similar chip on their shoulder.
The other thing that strikes you about this roster is the age of the players. Brian Qvale and Kelvin Martin are the elder statesmen on the team at 29 years old. The younger guys in the squad like Alessandro Pajola bring the average age down to 25, but the major players in the rotation are all in that 25-29 range - They are hungry, aggressive, and in multiple cases well positioned for career-years. What's more, they are already showing the signs of developing a team chemistry from solving those problems together.
The Computer - Tony Taylor
"I believe that Tony Taylor will have the right leadership. I think that the Point Guard is the coach on the court." - Stefano Sacripanti
During Sacripanti's time at Sidigas Avellino, his team was known for playing with a high volume of two Point Guard (PG) lineups. The PG position is clearly a fundamental building block for Sacripanti and with Taylor running point, Coach Sacripanti seems to have found his computer.
"I like to play with two able ball handlers, but usually I like to build a way to play that helps my players to showcase their own skills," said coach Sacripanti.
Taylor is a player that is clearly able to score. 12.7PPG at Banvit last season evidences his ability to put the ball in the bucket and he's already shown us that he will do it for this Virtus team when it's needed.
But Taylor's biggest strength is processing the information in front of him and calculating where the ball needs to go. A career Usage% in the low 20's tells you that Taylor isn't about dominating the ball, but more about finding the right matchup or situation for his teammates. Against Neptunas Taylor's Assist% was 42.6% - meaning that whilst he was on the floor, Taylor assisted 43% of Bologna's field goals - that number is high and will drop as the sample size increases, but you can be sure that whilst Taylor is on the floor, Virtus will be attacking teams where it hurts the most.
The scorers - Kevin Punter and Pietro Aradori
Pietro Aradori can score with the best of them. The Italian - who was coached by Sacripanti with the Italian U20 National Team (NT) in the 2008 European Championships - scored at a rate of 15.7 PPG last season and was also a key member of the senior Italian NT this summer. To start the Italian Lega A this season, Aradori is shooting 62%FG, 50% 3FG and 100% from the FT line.
Pietro Aradori getting it done.
Kevin Punter has also started the season in rude form. Across three games in all competitions, Punter is shooting 59% FG, 53% 3FG and 79% FT's.
"Sure they are both good scorers, they are able to build their own shots and my target is to involve them in a offensive and defensive team system to help them make a qualitative leap in their careers." - Stefano Sacripanti
We knew Punter could score. He was the Regular Season scoring champ with Rosa Radom and the Final Four's top scorer with AEK, over the course of a single season. The thing that stands out about Punter this season is the way he is scoring. When Bologna have needed a bucket, Punter has been delivering at all the right times. In this next clip, Neptunas had the lead at four and Bologna needed a bucket to maintain their comeback. Punter pulls up from two steps behind the line, with a hand in his face. He's been making these shots with unerring consistency.
Where we are seeing a difference in Punter's play with Bologna, is his expanding ability to take on more creative responsibilities. At times in the fourth quarter against Neptunas, Punter was relied on for more than just scoring. This next clip you see Punter in the same action as the last video. This time as he turns the corner in the pick-and-roll, he scans the floor and sees that Neptunas have sent two players to help on the roller. He assesses and makes the correct pass - if he'd chosen either player to the right, there was a second help rotation coming. Instead, Kelvin Martin's man has to make the closeout, allowing Martin to go 1v1 with an advantage.
If Punter continues to make tough shots, and also consistently use his gravity to create, he's well poised to make that qualitative leap that Coach Sacripanti speaks of.
The Wing-men - David Cournooh, Amath M'Baye and Kelvin Martin
Virtus' ability to turn up the heat on the defensive end was the major influence on the outcome of Gameday 1. They had been poor on both ends in the first two stanzas. Their trio of wing-men all played huge roles in that turnaround. All three can switch and guard multiple positions. They all hound the ball, play the passing lanes, and they all play defense with the same commitment as they show on the offensive end. This next video of Kelvin Martin shows what he is all about. But we could have made this video for all three. Clip 1 we see him in the passing lanes blowing up Neptunas' inbounds play. Clip 2 we see him apply the clamps to Weaver in a last-shot situation and the final clip needs no description. You can almost see that Virtus Bologna jersey blur into that yellow #6 of MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg.
The other thing this Virtus Bologna team have going for them, is that they have each other's backs. In the next video watch how David Cournooh sees Kevin Punter struggling to front the post after switching. He reads the pass and comes from nowhere to block the shot. Then again in the second clip, M'Baye reads the pass at a key moment in the game and makes a play from the weak-side. And finally, you see Punter and Kravic team up to block a shot and send Punter out on the break.
The bigs - Brian Qvale, Dejan Kravic and Filippo Baldi Rossi
Speaking of Dejan Kravic, the 2.13m (7ft) Canadian is certainly a player looking set for a career year. Although he played two games in the BCL Qualifiers for Basic-fit Brussels last season, this is undoubtedly the highest level he has played. He looked more than at home so far. Partnered with captain Qvale, the two big men set hard screens, suck players to them as they roll, then finish strong. And with Filippo Baldi Rossi as the complimentary pick and pop player in the frontcourt, Virtus Bologna has plenty of firepower up front. Against Neptunas all three protected the paint as well. Virtus lead the BCL on Gameday 1 in block % - they blocked a ridiculous 16.7% of the Lithuanians' shot attempts.
Kravic, in particular, was impressive around the rim on both ends. He regularly showed the ability to switch onto a ball handler and contain the drive. On two occasions he was also able to block the shot. The last occasion being the most vital play of the game.
Offensively Virtus Bologna's system is simple, logical and innovative at the same time. Almost everything is based around multiple ball reversals into pick-and-rolls. The basic premise is to make the defense shift east to west and force them to defend the biggest threats multiple times. Virtus will wait for the mistake and if no mistake surfaces, they have players that can create their own shot.
The key to simplicity is almost always in the execution. Coach Sacripanti's system also has some creativity to it but the execution is still just as methodical.
"Drag Screens" or transition ball screens are a staple part of every offense and defenses have in-turn become familiar with defending them. In this next set, we see Coach Sacripanti use a false drag screen. The trailing player fakes to set the drag screen then slips through. All this serves to cause hesitation in the defense before Virtus get into the action they really want to run: a dribble handoff into a ball screen.
Even if teams do know what's coming, Bologna has already shown that they are comfortable going into their reads and counters. In the next clip, Bologna twists the same simple action by turning back into a middle pick-and-roll. With the screener and ball handler's man both caught out, Taylor has all the time in the world to go upstairs to Kravic. Simple but lethal.
On the defensive end, Coach Sacripanti's men have shown similar deception within simplicity. It's not unusual to see an Italian team employ a zone defense to stifle their opponents' rhythm. Virtus Bologna will show what appears to be a standard zone defense but morph it into a "Junk Defense" with one player chasing the most dangerous shooter around screens. In this case, watch how Virtus call out Kelvin Martin to pick up Tomas Delininkaitis and then in the next clip it's Amath M'Baye's responsibility.
Coach Sacripanti has swapped the three-piece suit for the club tracksuit this season and has already spoken about how his squad is working in the right way. He seems like a man refreshed and armed with a squad that's ready to go to battle for each other.
A top-four finish and a spot in the Play-Offs looks a very realistic aim but with the talent in this squad and the way they are already showing us they can play -especially with those fans behind them - don't be surprised to see this squad make a run into the Quarter-Finals and beyond.