CENTERS OF ATTENTION
A hand injury to Strasbourg big man Matt Howard thrust the team's two most-experienced centers, Bangaly Fofana and Romain Duport, into big roles in the quarterfinals. The two combined to average 18.5 points on 15-of-21 shooting (71.4%), which included a pair of threes by Dport, plus 9 rebounds and 3 blocks. With Howard unlikely to return for the games against Trento, these two centers, who did not shoulder much of a load early in the season, remain focal points for Strasbourg. Of course Trento has a go-to- guy in the paint in Julian Wright, who is second on the team in scoring (14.5 ppg.), rebounding (5.6 rpg.), steals (1.5 spg.) and average index rating (16.8) and leads the squad in blocks (1.2 bpg.) But Wright (2.03 meters) and his backup Luca Lechthaler (2.06) will give up a lot of height to Fofana (2.12) and Duport (2.18). This will surely be a matchup to follow.
THE RESERVES HAVE IT
Trento head coach Maurizio Buscaglia and his Strasbourg counterpart Vincent Collet each have preferred visions of their starting fives, but both rely heavily on their reserves too. And neither would be in the semifinals today without some big contributions off the bench. While Trento has seen 10 different players start Eurocup games this season, Andres Forray, Jamarr Sanders, Trent Lockett, Davide Pascolo and Julian Wright have each been in the starting lineup at least 70% of the time. Strasbourg has used only six different starting in the Eurocup this far. Quarterfinals Game 2 MVP Dominique Sutton (9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg.) may be Trento’s key reserve, but he started both quarterfinals games after coming off the bench in the eighthfinals and all but one regular season game. Giuseppe Poeta’s contributions may not appear brightly in the box scores, but the backup point guard is an integral piece to the Trento success. For Strasbourg the men to watch are center Romain Duport and swingmen Paul Lacombe and Jeremy Leloup, who together make sure their team is always fresh in the backcourt at both ends of the floor. It’s very possible that this series’ most outstanding players may not be starters.
THE GREATEST DEBUT
What Dolomiti Energia Trento has already done this season puts it among the greatest debuts not just in Eurocup history, but among the best in all of European basketball. For Trento, which is playing just its second season in the Italian top level, this is also the first season of continental competition. By reaching the semifinals, it is matching what Iurbentia Bilbao Basket did seven years ago when it defeated Zadar in the single game quarterfinal at the 2009 Final Eight. That put Bilbao in the semis in what was its very first season of continental competition. Bilbao lost to Khimki Moscow Region in the semis, which means Trento has the chance to become the first team to ever reach the Eurocup Finals in its European debut. The last team to win a title in its European debut was Dynamo St. Petersburg, which took over Saratov’s license to compete in the 2005 FIBA Europe League and went 20-0 under Coach David Blatt and with star players Kelly McCarty and Vladimir Veemeenko to win the title in style.
Years from now, we may look back to this series to note when some stars got their starts. In general both teams have fairly young rosters. Trento features five rotation players born in the 1990s, though reserve center Filippo Baldi Rossi (knee) is out for the season. For Strasbourg that number may be only two, but three more were born in 1989. Each also has a teenage guard with a bright future. Trento’s Diego Flaccadori plays a much bigger role this season than Strasbourg’s Frank Ntilikina, but he is also two-and-a-half years his senior. Flaccadori (5.5 ppg.) started four games in the Last 32 and averaged 11.3 points on 9-of-15 three-point shooting (60%) to help the team go 3-1. Even with a slightly lesser role now, he can still score when called upon. Ntilikina has only appeared in three Eurocup games so far as a third-string point guard, but lest there be any doubt, he has played at least 20 minutes in two of the last three French League games and Coach Collet will not fear calling him in if needed.
CARRYING THE FLAG
Though several French clubs have found success at the lower levels of continental play in recent years, Strasbourg is the first to get this far in one of the top competitions in a decade and a half. In 2001, Elan Chalon knocked out Valencia in the Saporta Cup semifinals before losing to Maroussi of Greece in the title game. In 1997, France had a banner year with Racing Paris getting to the Saporta Cup semis, where it lost to Real Madrid, and Asvel Lyon Villeurbanne reached the Euroleague Final Four. The last French club to celebrate a top-level trophy was Limoges CSP when it won the Euroleague in 1993. Fans of Italian basketball are less starved for success at the highest levels. Benetton Treviso reached the Eurocup semifinals just five years ago and Montepaschi Siena reached four Euroleague Final Fours between 2003 and 2011, though it never advanced to the championship. Italian teams were the Euroleague runners-up in 2004 (Skipper Bologna) and 2003 (Benetton). The nation’s last continental champion was Kinder Bologna, which knocked off Tau Ceramica Vitoria in the 2001 Euroleague Finals.