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MANILA, Philippines – Most European basketball teams come with certain intimidating auras no matter which names play for them at any given time, and Italy is no exception in the upcoming 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Serving as the last group phase opponent for Gilas Pilipinas on Tuesday, August 29 at the Araneta Coliseum, the world No. 10 Azzurri are expected to be the heavy favorites against the Filipino hosts even in hostile territory thanks to their mix of rising stars and grizzled, NBA-caliber veterans.
Italy will try to build momentum from its 10th-place finish in the 2019 World Cup that broke a 13-year qualification drought, and will definitely not take it easy against anyone in the way this year.
Players to watch
Gilas superstar Jordan Clarkson will see a familiar face on the other side of the court this Tuesday, as his current Utah Jazz teammate Simone Fontecchio is also expected to lead his own team deep into the World Cup.
Although just an NBA rookie this past season, the 27-year-old sniper is no stranger to high-level competition, as he led the Italians in scoring with 19.3 points per game in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where they reached the quarterfinals before being booted by eventual silver medalist France.
Fontecchio then showed no signs of slowing down, peaking with norms of 21.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in the World Cup European qualifiers.
The 6-foot-7 forward also brushed off a slow season start with the Jazz, as he hiked his averages to 11.2 points on 40% shooting and a promising 37% clip from three in the final 18 games of his 52-game rookie campaign.
Holding down the Azzurri fort in the middle, meanwhile, is former NBA player Nicolo Melli.
Although just 6-foot-9 and used primarily as a power forward, the 32-year old stretch big is more than capable of holding his own down low, averaging 7.5 points in the 2020 Olympics, 12.6 points in the 2022 EuroBasket, and 14.5 points in the World Cup European qualifiers.
Melli played two seasons in the NBA from 2019 to 2021, mostly with the New Orleans Pelicans, before heading back home to play with Olimpia Milano.
One of the elder statesmen of the Italian national team, Luigi Datome is still going strong at 35 years old after making the final cut for World Cup.
Standing at 6-foot-8 and capable of playing both forward positions, the former Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics role player has also enjoyed a long, productive career in the EuroLeague – stifling defenses with his all-around scoring and flashes of perimeter defense.
Datome peaked in the 2016-2017 season with Fenerbache, averaging a respectable 12.4 points on 52% shooting, an elite 46% from three, and 87% from the free-throw line.
Road to the World Cup
While seen as perennial powerhouses in international competition, Italy nonetheless went through some speed bumps in their journey to the World Cup.
Following early qualifier losses and a mid-campaign coaching change, the Azzurri rebounded in the 2022 EuroBasket with a stunning ouster of favored Serbia to reach the quarterfinals, before again bowing to Olympic tormentor France.
In true powerhouse fashion, Italy still booked its World Cup ticket with one qualifying window to spare, and now eyes its first top-four finish since 1978.
History with Gilas Pilipinas
Although Italy’s encounters with the Philippine team have been few and far in between, the results have practically stayed the same: a thorough manhandling of the Filipino side.
After a 112-75 whipping way back in the 1978 World Championships, Italy again asserted mastery of the now-named Gilas in the 2019 World Cup with a 108-62 cruise.
There, Datome and Danilo Gallinari got the better of Andray Blatche, CJ Perez, and June Mar Fajardo with a 37-8 first quarter annihilation and essentially never looked back.
However, the third time may just be the charm for the Philippines as it currently boasts an in-prime Clarkson, while Italy no longer has Gallinari in tow nor Datome in peak form. – Rappler.com