Varese, Maccabi’s first European Championship Opponent looks to return to glory days under Scola, Arcieri and Brase

Jan 30, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

The last place one would ever think of finding a former NBA and Euroleague star at about 10:00 on a weekday morning would be in a dark and damp almost 60-year old arena just north of Milan that had seen its better days, working with a number of young players and working up a sweat from head to toe.

But yet this is where Luis Scola, the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist and one of the most decorated Argentinian basketball players of all time is.

Luis Scola on the court in Varese – Photo Credit: The Sports Rabbi

The Spanish league champion, NBA All-Rookie First Team and 2x All Euroleague First team, is the man in charge of Pallacanestro Varese where he ended his illustrious club career back in 2021. Yes, the same Varese that Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated in the 1977 by the score of 78-77 to capture their first ever European Championship.

Scola played close to 800 games in the NBA for a variety of teams including the Houston Rockets where he spent the majority of his 10-year time in the world’s greatest league to the Pacers where he went on his deepest playoff run to finally ending his time on the court in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the Games that were played in the summer of 2021 due to the Corona pandemic, the Argentine International was serenaded with a standing ovation and a lengthy pause in action when he was subbed off against Australia marking the end of his time as a professional player.

Now Scola has entered the next stage of his basketball life which is to take a once very proud basketball franchise and bring it back to its roots and its glory days. In order to do just that needed to bring in the right management team for both re-building that winning culture on and off of the court.

Michael Arcieri – Photo Credit: Alberto Ossola – Pallacanestro Varese

Michael Arcieri was one of the first people that Scola brought on board. The American born basketball lifer is a lawyer by trade, but a hoops aficionado first and foremost having worked for a number of NBA teams including the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and most recently the Knicks in a variety of roles from scout, director of basketball operations and director of basketball strategy. In fact, in New York Arcieri worked together with Maccabi legend and current chairman of the professional committee and external consultant to the club, David Blatt.

Arcieri joined Varese in January 2022 and immediately got to work trying to bring the club back to prominence which saw them win 5 European championships and 10 Italian league titles. The club’s general manager understood right off the bat what kind of amazing and at the same time challenging project he was getting into.

“The vision of Luis and based on player development which is defused throughout the organization is great,” Arcieri began. “We are trying to grow an organization organically and that’s important with our youth as we want them to grow up in the style of play and culture of what Varese basketball is.

“It’s based on hard work, being smart, using information to really see how we want to play the game and what players we want to be and to have that alignment, from the ownership to management to the players, it’s hard to do. It’s a smaller organization which helps, but it’s a great vision to have an owner that is Luis Scola and he has walked the walk and talked the talk. He has been a player, a worker who is super savvy and smart. There is no magic formula, it’s about the hard work and we all believe in that.”

Michael Arcieri – Photo Credit: The Sports Rabbi

In order to really roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty in this project, Arcieri needed to find the right head coach to lead Varese on the court which in itself was a process.

“We had the boxes we knew that we wanted to check in terms who we wanted as a human being, as to how we will treat each other every day and then specifically on the court how we want to play. Who are the coaches that believe in letting the numbers guide how we want to play.

“In Italy we are a little different as to how we play and the philosophy, whether you want to call it a modern philosophy or one that values layups and getting fouled. If you can’t get there then how to get to the corner or a long 3. We know what we want to do and then we had to do our due diligence to see which coaches have that experience. It was a lot of research and we came up with a list of people that we hoped would embrace what we are doing from a culture of practicing and being in the community. We had a number of candidates and we were happy that we had choices.”

Ultimately, Varese settled on Matt Brase who had most recently been an assistant coach with the Portland Trailblazers. However, Brase really learnt the tricks of the trade with the Rockets as an assistant between 2018-20 while also having had head coaching experience in the G-League. The 40-year old also spent time as a college player himself when he featured at Arizona under legendary coach and grandfather Lute Olson.

Matt Brase – Photo Credit: The Sports Rabbi

Brase’s experience with Houston was in fact very key for him being able to become Varese’s bench boss because of his time working in an organization that well known basketball executive Daryl Morey was a part of. Morey co-founded the world renowned MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in 2006 as he realized from the outset that there are ways to maximize a team’s play by running certain sets on the court. As a forward thinking hoops mind, Morey was able to carefully look at analytics in order to make his teams better.

This was a critical part of Brase’s education and it’s also why his Varese squad is running an offense that is as fast as one in the NBA and far quicker than any other team in Italy, “I was fortunate to be a part of the Rockets organization with Daryl Morey and that put the analytics into play. I was part of the G-League franchise there where we were kind of the lab for what the team wanted to do.”

Brase has been able to implement the method of play and the results have been solid so far, “You got to go all in on it and you can’t tip-toe around. We’re the fastest team in the league right now and we score the most points. I think we are 4-5 in efficiency, shoot the most 3’s, make the most 3’s in a game. We don’t want to just be an offensive team but that is kind of our identity right now. We definitely need to get better defensively which we are working on everyday. It’s one of those things where we are getting the most out of everything. We have had some success so far and it’s part of the process we are going through.”

Matt Brase – Photo Credit: G-League

Arcieri understood that “Moreyball” was the way to go in order to buck the Italian league trend and Brase was the ideal pick for the Varese post, “Matt has been great as have the staff and there is great synergy amongst them and great communication with the players. That’s how we went about it and made a final decision by the end of June which was good timing. Matt was the head coach in the G-League for the laboratory and scientist Daryl Morey. Identifying guys was critically important and we weren’t just going to find a coach which would be at the pace of the 16th team in Italy who was going to pound the ball and play isolation and post up. That coach was not going to find a good fit here.”

Once the head coach was in place, it became apparent as to what types of players Brase and Arcieri would be targeting to bring to Varese. The roster which is a combination of a of veterans who have played in the NBA and in the G-League like Markel Brown as well as some young local players like the ones Scola was working with.

“It’s a good project and Luis is all in on it,” Brase commented. “He’s lived all around the world and he chose to live here with his family and run this team where he is hands on day in and day out. He’s fully vested in it. As an owner he’s on the court working on player development with the guys, strategizing the roster and how we play. To have an owner who has played or so many years at such a high level is very unique and very welcome. It makes it very enjoyable.”

Chinanu Onuaku – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Having been around the G-League allowed Brase the opportunity to see some of his players have careers in Europe including a trip who are currently playing in Israel including last year’s league MVP and current Hapoel Tel Aviv big man Chinanu Onuaku, Hapoel Holon’s defensive all-star Chris Johnson and veteran Hapoel Tel Aviv forward JP Tokoto.

“Being an assistant coach and then a head coach in the G-League, I had many players that have played in Europe and I watched their clips when we were scouting certain guys. When I was going through the interview process I watched a lot of Italian basketball and Varese last year. Now that I’m here it’s one game on the weekend and during the week there is Euroleague, EuroCup and Champions League so I am watching that. Whenever there are games, I’ve got them on TV so I am getting more of a grasp of it. It’s fun as a person who likes to learn, it’s a good learning project.”

Arcieri and Brase are both looking to make sure that Scola’s vision runs through the entire organization from the youth levels all the way to the senior team which is now in 5th place with a 10-7 record. The main thing is for Varese is to get everyone in sync from the top to bottom in order for the club to run like a well-oiled machine.

“We try to do the right things whether it’s an extra pass, playing defense together, crashing the boards and rebounding,” Arcieri said. “We are bringing the youth program back under our umbrella and we are going to be investing in that and train our coaches so that the U15 team is analyzing where their shots are coming from or how do we defend the pick and roll. As a 14 year old that would excite me to know that the club is excited for us to play like a team and for us to be a family. We are not perfect at it, but we are trying to be that every day. Our motto is “Win the day.” Coaches talk about getting better every day with the 10 year olds and the 14 year olds. This project is amazing and you don’t get this chance very often, I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Markel Brown – Photo Credit: Alberto Ossola – Pallacanestro Varese

Brase also spoke about the process of trying to field as competitive a team as possible with an eye on the prize down the road in how crucial developing players will be for the project.

“We have a great staff and it makes it very fun and rewarding on a day in day out basis as they know the league and know the players. When you have good assistant coaches it makes my job that much easier. The challenge is going out each day and getting some sort of consistency. We are nowhere near the middle of the pack and probably near the bottom three in terms of budget. With Luis and Michael putting the together the roster you maximize the dollar you put into it. As a staff we maximize each player and we have a heavy investment in player development. Every day there is a lot of film and practice so it’s how much we can get out of each guy. That’s players, staff and coaches.”

There is a tremendous amount of ambition at Varese and that is also due to the club’s rich history and how the fans want to see the team return to its glory days. With supporters who can identify with the franchise from a time when it was a power in Europe to those who are younger and dream to see their team play at the highest levels, then this project will satisfy and unite the generations who have cheered faithfully for they crest game in and game out.

European Championship Cup – Photo Credit: The Sports Rabbi

“Our fans are incredible with the chants, flags, excitement and passion,” Brase explained. “It’s a lot of fun and similar to some big time college basketball program where the student section is going crazy and we have that with our local fans who give us an added advantage when we are home. The history is always important and I was studying it before I took the job. It’s because of the history that we have such a good fan base and an amazing home court advantage with our crowd. There are fans that were either around during the great moments or heard about it from friends and family members. I think it’s important that there is a history.”

Arcieri expanded on the club’s plans for the future, “Ultimately we want to return to compete in the Euroleague and be as competitive as we can. Get back to those glory days as they are seen here. That is a long process and we are not suggesting that it’s easy and that we will get there but that us a long term goal. We believe the way to get there is to have sustainability and a plan and not just kind of every season turn over the roster.”

The goal is to continue to develop that identity that will be the roadmap for success and getting better each and every day, little by little in order to take the club to the next level and continue to rebuild Varese’s legacy.

“Matt gets into what is the goal of the day and we get into winning the day,” Arcieri explained. “Bringing the youth back under our umbrella and the entire coaching staff is being inculcated with our philosophy of basketball at every single level. We are developing an identity and who we are going to be and how we are going to play. When teams scout us there are no mysteries, we know what these guys are going to do and that’s fine. I’m not saying that makes us better or worse. But only having an identity and what we are about we believe is how we can be successful with smart economics and sustainability.

Varese – Photo Credit: Alberto Ossola – Pallacanestro Varese

“We don’t have the biggest budget, but that is what all basketball teams have to do. For the shorter term it is to be developing a philosophy of coming to work every single day and getting 1% or half a percent better. But all of us everyday growing towards this is how we are going to treat each other and how we will play and this is how we are going to work and ultimately we believe that we will become a better basketball team that will be able to compete internationally.”

Whether Varese will compete next year in the EuroCup like newcomers Ryan Schmidt’s London Lions and Will Weaver’s Paris Basketball are, or the Basketball Champions League and Europe Cup, the club needs to take the next step in order to see progress which will in turn begin to attract free agents who will be able to play twice a week and not just once over the weekend in Italian Lega Basket Serie A play.

“We didn’t have that (Europe) this year and that’s ok. We have more days to practice this week and more days to recover and to get better as to what we are doing and focus on Sunday. Hopefully that will give us our best chance to win on Sunday night and then we can finish the year and talk about a shorter term goal that we have talked about for this season which is to be in the top half of the standings and qualify for the Coppa (which they did) or for the playoffs and hopefully compete internationally. Step by step, there is no rush and you’re fooling yourself always when you are building something to think that you can build this skyscraper in a week. You better be planting the foundation or you will be swaying in the wind.”

Brase pointed out that a city like Varese has a big advantage over many other locales in Italy that is a game changer that can maybe, just maybe help the team back to the top.

Matt Brase – Photo Credit: Alberto Ossola – Pallacanestro Varese

“I think the fans have been great and the community along with the people I have been able to meet that have been entrenched in this organization for years. You can just feel that passion here every single day. We have youth programs at our campus. As the project goes on we will see if we can grow certain players that can play in Serie A with you. Can you get one every couple of years? It’s important to grow and there will be more support too when you have local players. Soccer in Italy is such a big sport but basketball here in Varese is #1.”

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