Step by step

Coaching legend Ettore Messina provides an insight into the season so far with AX Armani Exchange Milan.

How do you assess your season so far?

So far it has been a great season. We have won the Italian Super Cup which is an eight team tournament and we are doing well in the Italian league with a 14-1 record. In the Euroleague, it is a very tough season because there is no home court advantage for anybody. We had a lot of injuries. We have missed Vlade Micov the first time for two months and now he has been out for one month already. Kevin Punter has missed one and half months, Malcolm Delaney was out for almost a month. So, we have a lot of injuries and we still managed a 12-7 record, which is a very good record. We have a lot of work ahead of us especially as the situation with injuries is not improving. Right now, we have Shavon Shields out, I have already mentioned Micov and yesterday Jeff Brooks got inured as well. We are definitely not lucky but we are showing a lot of consistency and good quality basketball. We are very confident that we can have a good second part of the season, if everyone will be there. But this season is unpredictable, forget normal injuries, if some players get Covid we are in real trouble, we are literally thrown under the bus. We have to live day by day and cross a lot of fingers

Milan after decades of quite mediocre performances in the Euroleage has assembled a roster which suggests that you are intending to compete with the true heavyweights of the league and perhaps even return to the glory days from the early 90’s. Your arrival along with a plethora of proven winners such as  Kyle Hines, Malcolm Delaney and Gigi Datome have signaled the intentions of the organisation, Do you sense that expectations are really high and it is almost now or never?

Olimpia has not made the Euroleague Play Off for seven years. I think that our major goal would be to make the Play Off in the first place. Then we can start thinking and hoping that in the following year we can make another step forward. Another major goal is to win the national title in Italy.  Because of the Italian Super Cup we started playing in August and already have six months of action behind us and our results are good so far. It would be great if we manage to confirm these results and repeat this in the second part of the season. At the present we are satisfied with our progress and don’t want to make steps too big and think too far ahead, we are happy with our progress. I think we are having a very good mixture here where our veterans are leading young or younger players like Punter or Kaleb Tarczewski. We will build on that.

I definitely believe that the players which you have at your disposal are true winners and they know how to deliver trophies. However, these leaders are not so young. Sergio Rodriguez and Kylie Hines are 34, Gigi Datome and Michael Roll are 33, even Malcolm Delaney is 31. In the light of your answer to the previous question, do you think your core players are at the right age and stage of their careers to challenge for trophies next season?

I think we are very far from those perennial Final Four teams who seem to be there every year. We are building a great culture of work here, our professionalism is good and we have a great sense of togetherness. It is very good to have this, but it’s not enough. Of course, if the opportunities arises, we would hope to be ready to take this opportunity in this precise moment in time. At the present time we are not even discussing the possibility of competing for the championship of Europe. That would be stupidity on our part. First of all we have to make the Play Offs and then grow as a group and organisation. Then we will try to make adjustments, and the steps forward to improve to become a contender. Hopefully we will become an organisation which both Mr Armani and the history of Olimpia deserves.

Would you agree that this season presents us with one of the most open Euroleagues in history. Anybody could beat anybody. Crvena Zvezda has just beaten Real in Madrid. Is this an additional advantage for such an experienced team like Milan?

As you know, to get to the Final Four you need to go through a five game series Play Off with no home court advantage. In a situation where the is no home supporters I guarantee you that the strongest team will prevail. In a single game I agree with you, anybody can beat anybody. This is why this edition of Euroleague is so intriguing for the fans. In the Pay Offs its completely different. In a five games series the top four teams will make the Final Four. Maybe we will be one of these teams, who knows.

In January you have some extremely tough home games against teams which are playing exceptionally well this season starting today with Bayern Munich, then Zenit St Petersburg and Olympiacos. Do you feel that could be a crucial part of the season which sets the tone for the rest of the competition?

Look, at the present my mind is solely on today’s game. We will be playing without four important players. For sure these home games are very important, but we have already shown that we can win on the road as well. In this years Euroleague if you make mistake at home or you are playing without important players and you drop the game than you can get it back on the road some other time. Everything is so open and anything can happen. Coaches very often say that in Euroleague you have to take it game by game, This year this is true more than ever.

Of course the unpredictability of the season in great measure is caused by the situation with Covid-19.. How does the pandemic affect your season?

I think players all over Europe have been extremely professional. I think that Euroleague has worked well together with the clubs in order to create and ensure good protocols, which are updated thorough the season to face unexpected situations. This has been a great effort from Euroleague, the players, coaches and referees. The referees have an especially difficult task, they travel individually on commercial airlines so its difficult for them. I feel really for the foreign players that don’t have family in the city that they play in. They don’t have any experience of the city which they living in and are staying segregated at home. They just go to practice and they stay home by themselves. Plenty of them live alone so they have to rely on facetime to connect with families which live very far. I think they are making a tremendous effort. This season has been very demanding from a mental point of view. So far, we have exceeded expectations from an organisational point of view. If you remember, we had a tough start with twelve games postponed in the first month and half. Now the competition is regular and is really exciting for us.

Thank you very much and all the best for the rest of the season.