By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
If I was being uncharitable towards Spirou Charleroi, mean-spirited even, I might be mulling over some of these ideas: last year Spirou Charleroi went 3-3 in the Qualifying Rounds, won all three of their home games by narrowly more than they lost on the road, and made it to the Euroleague Regular Season. Although they did manage to beat Brose Baskets, Unicaja and Real Madrid at home, they went 0-5 on the road. This time round, they won the Qualification Tournament that was conveniently held at their very own Spiroudome, to return to European basketball’s promised land. They were only slightly less atrocious that BC Donetsk in the first game and in the final they avoided a BC Khimki side that had imploded against CEZ Nymburk.
Is there a point to all this? Well, it is factually accurate to say Spirou’s road record over all those games mentioned is 0-8, and their home record is 6-2. It is my contention that to simply read ‘homecourt advantage’ into their success in reaching the Euroleague proper once again is short sighted and not a little unfair. Here’s why:
Spirou cannot compete in the same financial league as your CSKA Moscows, your Barcelonas, your Maccabi Tel Avivs. Mickael Gelabele, their one marquee summer acquisition, got hurt and then left without playing a meaningful game, his head allegedly turned by a better Euroleague offer closer to home. They have to be clever with their money, and extract the optimum performance out of the players they call their own. That they have managed to do this two years in a row, is testament to the skills of Giovanni Bozzi, their quick witted, dry and highly organised coach, who has shaped the team in his own image – hard working, resolute and with not a small amount of underdog swagger.
Spirou will beat someone good at home – last season Real Madrid (I’m not sure we can call Unicaja ‘good’) sleepwalked into the Spiroudome and left with a 67-49 whupping. We could very much see a repeat of that, or maybe Bozzi will come up with a magic formula to beat Efes… this is all speculation, but it is extremely possible, no. OK, I’ll say it – they will beat one of the cool kids on their home patch, maybe even two. The key question is whether they can get over the travel sickness and come back with a few wins on the road. They need to prove they can do this, doubts will persist as to their ability.
The meat of the team that reached this stage last year has returned. Point guard Demond Mallet has plenty of experience (the mean guy from the opening ‘graph would say that means he’s old) and is still a pretty dangerous three point shooter (37.5% last season), and can run the offense with the stability and good decision making that it needs. A look at some shows that Spirou led the competition in pace last year, but finished second from bottom in points per possession and FG%. They were second in defensive rebound rate, but second from bottom on the offensive glass. They like to play aggressive – but not reckless – defense, and if they can clean the defensive glass well again, Mallet can push the ball up the floor. But this team doesn’t really have the personnel to grind out a methodical halfcourt offense.
In the qualifiers, they ran a variety of pick and roll sets with Dwayne Broyles or Caleb Green rolling or popping out, or a number of secondary looks with an extra pass to an open shooter. But this was most effective in a lineup with Broyles as a small four, and bigger guards in Jiri Welsch and Chris Hill, although with such a small sample size, and Broyles out injured for most of the Regular Season, it’s difficult to tell whether it could unleashed against better, bigger, opposition and I suspect not.
Welsch should be a useful acquisition, another player with heaps of experience and a desire to re-establish himself as a relevant Euroleague performer after spending last year with Estudiantes. Now that Gelabale will be elsewhere, it falls on the Czech to be that do-everything guy on the wing that the French star was supposed to be, though probably not to the same high standards.
Justin Hamilton and Chris Hill make up the rest of the guard corps, and both are solid two way players, Hill in particular is used mostly for his defensive rigor, and could make life uncomfortable for the celebrated line of perimeter players they’ll have to face in this group. But against the likes of Real Madrid, Anadolou Efes and Maccabi, I suspect they may always be one or two players short of presenting a real threat. Upfront, Andre Riddick will block shots and rebound, but isn’t a threat at all to score unless he catches the ball underneath the rim. His curious free throw technique and palpable awkwardness on the court shouldn’t mask a defensive proficiency that will surprise those who maybe haven’t paid too much attention to Spirou so far. Christophe Beghin offers low post scoring, with guile rather than bulk, but Riddick will have to anchor the defensive effort against the other team’s best scorer on the block.
In the ‘undersized four’ spot, In Dwayne Broyle’s initial absence, Caleb Green has a huge burden to shoulder. In the Qualifiers he hit shots at all the right times, and it’s not a huge leap of faith to imagine him doing the same in the Regular Season. He put up impressive numbers at Oral Roberts and has made his way through the Belgian league over the past three years. Now would be the time to really make a mark on the rest of the continent. If he can progress from some tidy Eurochallenge performances, stepping up to the biggest stage, then Spirou could be even more dangerous.
I would put good money on Tornike Shengelia having at least one game that leads to an outpouring of admiration on Twitter and his Fantasy Challenge price jumping up. The young Georgian won the MVP of the Division B u20 Championship this summer, and while Div B isn’t great competition he showed enough in the qualifiers to suggest he could change the course of a few games, when used in short, controlled bursts. Another young forward coming through who doesn’t care for the stereotype of the jump-shooting Euro-big, he is much more at home exploding to the rim and finishing over just about anyone.
The club has tried to add that one player who could handle scoring the 15-18ppg on a regular basis that I’m not sure anyone on this roster has the ability to deliver. First, with Gelabale, then in an effort to sign Zaza Pachulia, and it’s that kind of incisive scoring punch that the roster lacks at the moment. It’s not that they don’t have anyone who can put up points, they just don’t have anyone with proven ability to shoulder the load against better teams than they faced in the qualifiers.
Had Lietuvos Rytas beaten Galatasaray in the other QR tournament, Spirou would have gone into Group D, where finishing above Prokom and maybe Union Olimpija might not have been such a stretch. As it is, due to the policy of separating teams from the same country, Efes’ presence in Group C meant the Belgians ended up in the proverbial Group of Death. Not that many people expected them to be here (ELA’s own Slam was a notable exception) and even fewer expect them to make the Top 16. That doubting majority is probably right, especially in Group C, but nobody should take a trip to black heart of the Belgian coalfields lightly.
Biggest Acquisition: Jiri Welsch – this is a team with a lot of chemistry that hasn’t changed a whole lot since last year, but what they have lacked is a guy who won’t be flustered by facing Europe’s elite. He won’t monopolise the ball or play the aloof veteran, he knows his collar now has a blue tinge to it, and in a very well coached team where everyone knows his role, Welsch will fit right in. They could have done with a ‘bigger’ acquisition, but the former Celtic will have to do for now.
Biggest Loss: Joseph Gomis and Brent Wright both put up decent numbers last year but their time had probably come to make way for younger legs. The biggest loss if you can count him is really Mickael Gelebale, if he is actually fit to play after the injury at Eurobasket. If he does end up signing for SLUC Nancy like everyone expects, we will be able to find out.
Swingman: Demond Mallet really needs to play a great 30+ minutes a game and penetrate to find easy buckets for some of his more offensively limited teammates. Spirou are going to find all of these games hard, and Mallet will have to distribute, then go for the kill when necessary, if they’re to keep things interesting right up to Christmas.
Best Drinking Buddy: I’m going to go slightly out of the box here and pick the Coach, Giovanni Bozzi. Never one to shy away from speaking his mind at the press conference (comparing refs to children with new toys, for example) I would imagine after a few drinks the conversation would delve way deep down into putting the European basketball world to rights, but most importantly, it would be downright hilarious.
Drink Of Choice: It sounds obvious, but in Belgium, it’s not going to be wine, is it? I’d meet Bozzi in an old-fashioned Brussels drinking den and the Vedetts, Leffes and Grimbergens would pile up quickly. C’mon, you don’t think we’d go out drinking in Charleroi, do you? Have you seen Charleroi?
Prediction: A respectable showing, but going no further than the Regular Season.