By Antigoni Zachari / [email protected]
It’s the year of the Azzurri! Not only did the football national team win the Euro, but Italy’s excellence in the Belgrade final of the Olympic qualifying tournament against hosts Serbia marked the return of the nation to the Olympics for the first time since 2004.
An important feat if we take into consideration the fact that key players such as Gigi Datome and Marco Bellineli were missing for coach Meo Sacchetti. Now that the most nerve-wracking part is over, the squad can enjoy the outcome of their work in Tokyo.
Each player on Italy’s 12-man squad will gain his first Olympics experience this July, in a squad of an average age of 27. Last time Italy made it to the Olympics and left with the silver medal, the entirety of the squad hadn’t even started playing professional basketball yet. With that being said the team deserves huge credit for coming together and managing to defeat the favorites, Serbia earlier in July.
Achille’s strength was just one ace up Sacchetti’s sleeve
Achille Polonara, the tournament’s MVP who had just finished an impressive season with Baskonia, was the guiding force of the squad with a career-best game in the final, and he is now prepared for “war” in his first Olympics, as he told FIBA. “We need to go in every game like we are going to war. We know that only two teams go to the quarterfinals, so we’ll just play every game like it’s our last.”
Polonara, 29, said he “doesn’t care” about the MVP honors, though his effort in Belgrade was notable (17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg). Still, we should not neglect captain Nicolo Melli’s impact (despite not being too visible on the scoring end), Simone Fontecchio’s resilience (second best top scorer in Belgrade behind Puerto Rico’s Gian Clavell) and 20-year-old guard Nicolo Mannion’s breakthrough with the selection in just his second appearance (17.7 ppg).
It was a very peculiar group in Belgrade with the Senegalese national team not being able to participate after all, though Italy’s sole game against Puerto Rico in the first round was enough to get them started into the tournament. The absences and the lack of experience of big Olympic events weren’t able to hold the squad back with this solid new core. Instead, Sacchetti relied on the team’s biggest asset, three-point shooting (42.7% in the OQT), which eventually worked wonders in the final and stunned Serbia.
Looking ahead to Tokyo with Gallinari on board
Now a few weeks later, the squad will be reinforced with Atlanta Hawks star Danilo Gallinari, who’s going straight to the Olympics after a demanding season in the NBA. It will be a huge bet for coach Sacchetti to incorporate Gallinari into his existing plans that led the team to Tokyo and at the same time, it can serve as a surprise factor for Italy’s opponents in group B (Australia, Germany and Nigeria). Undoubtedly, the 32-year-old can supply the squad with plenty of experience and quality in this big challenge.
The team’s greatest success this summer, regardless of the outcome in Tokyo, is the fact that it has created the next generation of the national team that will try to live up to the expectations set by their predecessors. For sure we can expect that Polonara will take on a major role once again and that the addition of Gallinari will be just the cherry on top of this promising young squad. Whatever happens in Tokyo, Italy will still win a core to work on in the coming years.
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