Some may look at Montepaschi Siena and head coach Simone Pianigiani as the new kid on the block at this Final Four, but he's hardly concerned with what others think. After quickly building Montepaschi into an Italian powerhouse, the 38-year-old maestro – in just his second season in charge – leads the club back to the Final Four for the first time since 2004. What's more, as an experienced assistant from Montepaschi's previous two trips to the Final Four, this time he is targeting a first Euroleague crown for his hometown club. With an entire roster that buys into his defensive and team-first philosophies, Montepaschi has made plenty of believers along the way. "We didn't think on the Final Four because our philosophy since the beginning of the season was to take one game at the time and try to discover our potential game by game," Pianigiani told Euroleague.net. "When you see that you can play at the same level as those teams, it can only be good for the players and their confidence."
Hello coach. How much does reaching the Final Four in your Euroleague debut as a head coach mean to you?
"It means a lot, of course, because we deserve to be here. We are happy to have made it to the Final Four, but also because we had the chance to show that we can play against any team in Europe face-to-face. We challenged the best teams in Europe to be in the Final Four. This is most important for us: that we are in Madrid not because of a special situation or because we were in really good shape for one month at the right time. We made it because we played strong all season long, overcoming tough moments like Kaukenas's injury."
With no stars and relatively little experience at this level, few people chose Montepaschi as a Final Four team before the season started or even in the middle of it. How did you manage to surprise everybody?
"I think that the most important reason is that there are great persons in the team with great work ethic. They work in the right way and listen. If you play like a team, you can face anybody. Maybe sometimes it is easier against some teams that you know what to do in order to beat them, just stopping what they are good at. If you play like a team, you need big effort on defense but also on offense everyday to improve your systems. There are also a lot of people in the club working really hard around the team. Not only do we have good people in the team, but also around it. That's very important to stay at the top level. You can win or lose, but if you play like a team and stay together, working in the right way, everything is easier for everybody."
At what point this season did you realize that your team was good enough to reach the Final Four and compete for the Euroleague crown? Was there a particular game or moment that convinced you?
"From the beginning, since we were able to compete against CSKA or to beat Tau Ceramica in the regular season. We already thought in the regular season that we could compete against the best teams. Obviously, we didn't think on the Final Four because our philosophy since the beginning of the season was to take one game at the time and try to discover our potential game by game. When you see that you can play at the same level as those teams, it can only be good for the players and their confidence. Many of the players were Euroleague newcomers, so a strong start was important. Once we played against Panathinaikos in Athens, we started to think about the Final Four because we knew we could win our Top 16 group with a home win. Until that moment, we went game by game. Everything is possible in the Euroleague, like seeing top teams like Real Madrid, Olympiacos, Barcelona or Panathinaikos not making it to the Final Four."
Even though we call this your Euroleague debut as head coach, you were an assistant with two previous Final Four teams of Montepaschi, 2003 and 2004. From those experiences, what did you learn about preparing a team for the Final Four?
"First of all, I know there is a great atmosphere there. The Final Four is the most exciting situation for a coach in Europe. At the same time, I am happy that we don't play another Italian team in the semifinal, because we already lost against two of them in 2003 and 2004! We were unlucky against them. In any case, the goal is that this nice atmosphere around the Final Four will not affect the team. We have to stay focused and approach the game like any other. If we play like this, we are ready to fight in the best way. Of course, those teams that have experienced this atmosphere before, with all the media people around you and the best of the best in the European basketball world, have an advantage. I don't want my players to feel any extra pressure. From my experience, we have to enjoy the experience and think about basketball, and not about anything else around the Final Four. All that has little importance."
Montepaschi just missed the chance to play Maccabi in the 2004 title game. Now you have them in the 2008 semifinal, this time on a neutral court in Madrid, instead of Tel Aviv. What are your thoughts on facing Maccabi next week?
"Maccabi is maybe the only team that we never were able to beat. It is a great chance for us, because many times as assistant coach, we had close games against them that went down to the final minute and we always lost. If we are able to arrive in the same situation, with a close game until the final seconds, maybe we will have the luck on our side. It is always nice to play against Maccabi, because they have good fans and great tradition. It will be a good game and everyone is motivated to play against them."
Can you update us on the status of point guard Terrell McIntyre after his surgery and that of Rimas Kaukenas, too, as concerns the possibilities each have of playing in the Final Four?
"Rimas is working hard, but his injury was quite severe and it will be impossible for him to play in the Final Four. Of course, he will be there with us in Madrid to stay with his teammates. He is a very proud player but he cannot play the Final Four. As for Terrell McIntyre, he has to check his situation with our doctors and medical staff during this week. He is very important for us. He has a big heart and played with physical problems until the end of the Quarterfinal Playoffs. Even if he is not 100 percent, he will play because he wants to do it and everybody expects him to arrive in shape for the Final Four. We will have a final answer about his ankle by the end of this week."
Big man Ksistof Lavrinovic has been one of the most-effective per-minute players in the Euroleague this season. How important has he been to your success? Can you explain the strategy of using him as a sixth man?
"Ksistof is one of our key players. Everyone is important for us because like I told you before, we are a group and every single part is important. Lavrinovic makes our opponents change their point of view because he can play power forward and center. He can play in the low post and also shoot from outside, opening the court on our offense. This is also the reason why he comes off the bench, because he can change the game every time he steps on court. I also started with Kaukenas off the bench several times this season, because I like players that can change our offense and put our opponents in trouble. We start with Benjamin Eze because he is a strong player, a good defender that knows how to read the pick-and-roll. This is our basic situation. Then we use Lavrinovic at four or five, depending on how we read the game. He can come off the bench in the right moment and change the game."
With your own experience at Final Four, what are you planning to tell your players in terms of taking advantage of such a rare opportunity?
"I don't want anything to change. I want to keep our philosophy - stay together and try to be better every day than the day before, enjoying to play every single game from pre-season until now. This philosophy helped us to get to Madrid and now it is not the time to change it, of course not. We have to enjoy, feel good and know this is not the right time to change anything. Enjoy and play hard, that is what I will tell my players. This is a great chance. Everyone wants to win the Euroleague, that's normal because this is professional sports. We have to be positive while we are in Madrid."
How excited are the fans in Siena about the Final Four and about carrying the flag there for Italian basketball?
"The atmosphere is nice. Siena is a small city and everybody is crazy for basketball. I don't know how many fans we have but people ask about tickets outside our gym every day! Everyone wants to come to Madrid and they all will be excited to follow their team in Madrid. This is great for us, not everyone will be able to come to Madrid, but everyone in Italy will watch on TV. It is a responsibility, but we are very proud of this."
As someone who was born in Siena and raised in Mens Sana Basket, have you let yourself imagine what it would be like to return home with the title? What would it mean to the club to verify its great work this decade with a Euroleague title?
"Our target last season was to win the Italian League and we did it. My main target this season was making Montepaschi become a top team in Europe, take Montepaschi back to the top level. We made it to the Final Four, which means we reached that goal, too. This is a great feeling to me, reaching these two targets in less than two years. Maybe it is not finished yet. How I would feel is difficult to explain, really difficult. I cannot explain it with words. It would be something very special. Last season was the best Italian League one ever for Montepaschi. We also broke our Euroleague regular season record and did even better in the Italian League regular season, too. We never got so many wins in the Euroleague before. I would like if we could do better than ever and at least reach the final. That is our first target and then, once we are in final... everything is possible."