By Cesare Milanti / firstname.lastname@example.org
Taking a look at the post-Montepaschi Siena years in the Italian basketball landscape, only EA7 Emporio Armani Milan has managed to win more domestic championships (4) than Umana Reyer Venice. After lifting the Italian League title in both the 2016-17 and 2018-19 seasons, the team from La Serenissima also brought home the 2019-2020 Italian Cup right before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the wise and meticulous leadership of Walter De Raffaele, the gold-and-garnet side entered the national history books but never overcame the eighthfinals obstacle in the BKT EuroCup. In particular, the team failed to make the most of its passionate support at Palasport Taliercio – Reyer’s small, crowded arena – when things mattered most.
For the first time in seven years, this season marked the dawn of a new era. After helping build the team’s roster over the summer, Neven Spahija entered the 2023-24 campaign as head coach, having been appointed midway through last season. Now, step by step, Reyer is starting to deliver on the European stage.
Moving on to a new chapter in Venice
Being attractive and recognizable by millions of people across the world, Venice is a pretty special place to live. Alongside a winning and constructive environment, this was likely the reason why the Italian team’s core managed to stay the same year after year as it built the foundations of its wins on a well-united squad.
Names like Michael Bramos, Austin Daye, Stefano Tonut, Mitchell Watt and the already mentioned De Raffaele belong to the (successful) past. From the last trophy captured by Reyer, only Andrea De Nicolao and the young Davide Casarin are still at the club as they bridge the past and the future, with a promising present in between.
Trusting the Italian pick and roll duo composed of Marco Spissu and Amedeo Tessitori, this year’s Reyer team moved on to new beginnings. Coach Spahija brought in EuroCup rookies Rayjon Tucker and Barry Brown Jr and has been getting them up to speed, while Aamir Simms and Kyle Wiltjer, two players with competition experience after playing for Paris Basketball and Unicaja Malaga, respectively, arrived as ready-made options.
Add to the mix some weapons off the bench, like former Duke and Stockton Kings forward Alex O’Connell and two adopted Italians in Jeff Brooks and Jordan Parks, and you find yourself with a potentially high-level playoff contender, despite the toughness of Group A.
Starting the EuroCup season 0-3 with losses against some of the hottest teams in the competitions, like the London Lions, Paris and Hapoel Shlomo Tel Aviv, Reyer would now be on a four-game winning streak if it wasn’t for Matt Mitchell’s heroics for Besiktas Emlakjet Istanbul in Round 5.
Using the paint to bounce back in the EuroCup
However, beating Joventut Badalona (Round 4), Cedevita Olimpija Ljubljana (Round 6) and Wolves Vilnius (Round 7) to get back on track doesn’t sound like too bad of a response. That is particularly true ahead of a road game in Riga on Wednesday night against a team with the same 3-4 record, Prometey Slobozhanske, which recently signed former EuroCup MVP Rob Gray.
En route to finding itself in seventh place in Group A after such a slow start, Coach Spahija gave the keys of the offense to Spissu, who repaid the Croatian’s trust with 15.3 points (11-of-14, 78.6% 2FG) and 5.8 assists in the last four games. Moreover, he was perfect from three (5-of-5, 100.0% 3FG) in Reyer’s win against Joventut.
Most of the Italian playmaker’s decisive passes end in the hands of Tessitori, who has put the team on his back with 12.7 points and 6.0 rebounds since the beginning of the season. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Reyer is taking 31.0% of its shots inside the paint, the second most in the competition.
What has really changed in the team’s offensive approach between the start of the campaign and its recent run in the EuroCup, however, is the far more consistent play from Barry Brown Jr. The 26-year-old guard, who averaged 8.2 points on 4-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc in the first five rounds, has put up 22.5 points and shot 54.5% on three-pointers in Reyer’s last two wins.
Part of an athletic and physical core alongside Simms and the leading scorer of this team, Tucker (13.6 points per game), he is one of the main reasons behind Reyer’s improvement performance-wise, which has translated into much-needed victories.
Playing like this and with several players hitting their stride under Coach Spahija, Reyer certainly has more than enough to keep up its charge in the EuroCup.
PHOTO CREDIT: BKT EuroCup