Euroleague Preview, Week 3
Fenerbahçe looks to join Europe’s elite.
Montepaschi Siena (2-0) vs. Cibona (0-2)
Led by Bojan Bogdanovic, a slew of Croatian youngsters and a couple veterans like Drago Pasalic and point guard Rok Stipcevic, Cibona have played their way into my heart. Even with Bogdanovic’s strong play, 20-year-old Leon Radosevic might make his case for the Rising Star trophy with averages of 15.5 points and 6.5 boards to go with 3 steals in his remarkable (honestly, almost unheard of) 36 minutes per game. I think that Cibona’s dedication—perhaps by necessity—to sticking with a set of core guys will eventually pay off in the form of unrivaled chemistry; however, Montepaschi has succeeded behind another of Simone Pianigiani’s schematic decisions, this time playing All-Euroleague point guard Bo McCalebb off the ball in favor of the veteran wing Rimantas Kaukenas whose knowledge of the offense is far more advanced given his prior stint in Siena. I’m sure McCalebb will take the reigns once he’s ready, but for now he’s proven to be a force even without dominating possessions. This is a great luxury for undefeated Siena, and terrible news for the visitors from Zagreb. Montepaschi Siena.
Cholet Basket (0-2) vs. Lietuvos Rytas (0-2)
Usually one would tilt the scales toward the home team in a match up of winless clubs, but Lietuvos Rytas has simply looked better. After putting up just 44 points in week one, Cholet did look ten times better in a 7-point loss against the champs from Barcelona last week, even winning the final three quarters 63-60. But they still lose the eye test (on average) to Rytas. And if you want to consult the common opponent rule then Lietuvos Rytas’ 4-point loss to Montepaschi looks much better than Cholet’s -32 margin. I usually don’t resort to such measures, but it’s week two so I’ve got to use everything at my disposal. Khalid El-Amin should only get better against a weak defensive backcourt for Cholet and Brad Newley+Kenan Bajramovic continues to be one of my favorite forward combos in the league. Lietuvos Rytas.
Regal FC Barcelona (2-0) vs. Fenerbahçe Ülker (2-0)
In a stroke of luck for the fans, four of the Euroleague’s six undefeated teams face off in week three. This one should be the more revealing of the two for a couple of reasons. From Fenerbahçe’s point of view, this is a chance to show the league they’re to be taken seriously after two consecutive underachieving campaigns. Turkey’s still riding the hoops wave from FIBA (with Allen Iverson the latest to surf it’s ambitious waters with Besiktas) and Istanbul is ready to host a continental power. A road win against Europe’s best could put them within reaching distance of the top tier.
Barcelona hasn’t seen a competitor the quality of Fenerbahçe this season (Cibona by 14, Cholet by 7), so Fenerbahçe could very well catch them napping and spring an upset on Juan Carlos Navarro and company. From a match up perspective, Ülker has a similar team make up: a deep, stable backcourt made up predominantly by veterans: Navarro, Jaka Lakovic, Victor Sada, Roger Grimau and Rubio for Barcelona; Roko Ukic, Omer Anan, Lynn Greer and Marko Tomas for Fenerbahçe. Then they’ve got capable American scorers on the wing with Barca’s Pete Mickeal and FB Ülker’s Tarence Kinsey. Lastly, their depth is made up primarily down low where Barcelona features Fran Vazquez, Boniface N’Dong, Erazem Lorbek, Terence Morris and Kosta Perovic while Ülker counters with Darjus Lavrinovic, Kaya Peker, Gasper Vidmar, Oguz Savas and all-time Euroleague rebounding king Mirsad Turkcan. Now I realize naming a bunch of names proves nothing except for, “Sweet. Both teams filled their rosters with basketball players. How strange.” But what’s interesting is the similarity between these teams’ respective complexions and, conversely, the disparity in intercontinental success rates between the two. The difference is in the attitudes, as the poise on this Barca won’t be matched by any existing EL team. If Fenerbahçe goes down this week, they need to take a sample of Barca’s swagger back home with them. They’re officially on the brink. Barcelona.
Efes Pilsen (1-1) vs. AJ Milano (1-1)
Efes Pilsen is another Istanbul resident looking to take that next step (the city of approximately 15 million is home to four teams: Efes Pilsen and Fenerbahçe of the Euroleague as well as Besiktas Cola Turka, home to the Answer, and Galatasaray Cafe Crown, both of whom compete in the Eurocup). Kerem Tunceri—he of the lay up with :03 remaining to put Turkey in the FIBA Gold Medal game over Serbia—is playing insanely well on both ends and continues to spark this team by getting the rock to scorers like two-time EL scoring champ, Igor Rakocevic, who’s tied for second in the league at 21.5 PPG so far. Milano continues to be without Minnesota Timberwolves transplant Oleksiy Pecherov, who’s first in the points category with 23 (in only one game prior to injury, mind you), but they have been carried by speedy guards Morris Finley of UAB and Ibby Jaaber, formerly of Penn. The fast pace has seen them average 80 points per game (sixth in the league) while their lack of size has forced them to over finesse at times; they are the worst rebounding team in the EL and only the winless pair of Spirou and CIbona have taken fewer free throws than Milano’s 25. Meanwhile, Efes Pilsen has gotten to the line 56 times. Scarier, yet, is the fact that they’ve connected on 51 of those. That’s 91 percent as a team. Get big, AJ. Efes Pilsen.
Valencia (0-2) vs. CSKA Moscow (0-2)
What an odd duel between winless clubs. Valencia came into the season with high hopes, having had a successful offseason following their Eurocup championship. Then Nando de Colo gets hurt, Jeremy Richardson starts the year with an injury, and it’s taken them a 1-4 ACB record and 80 EL minutes to realize their team has no rhythm.
CSKA came in as my favorite to win the whole thing with the league’s strongest ensemble of veterans in JR Holden, Ramunas Siskauskas, Trajan Langdon and the revived Matjaz Smodis to lead a junior group of emerging studs to the ‘ship. Starting center Sasha Kaun underwent a knee surgery that will keep him inactive until February, Ramunas Siskauskas announced he’ll miss a month with a bad back, and Viktor Khryapa has yet to shake an injury that kept him out of Russia’s FIBA games this summer. But sit tight CSKA nation; Coach Dusko Vujosevic has done more with less in the past than almost anyone. Though Nando’s coming back for Valencia, CSKA will find a way to avoid an 0-3 start. CSKA Moscow.
Union Olimpija (2-0) vs. Panathinaikos (2-0)
As large a mystery as Union Olimpija’s 0-2 start is, Zeljko Obradovic’s sparse use of brand new Panathinaikos big man, Aleks Maric is equally puzzling. His 15 point, 9 rebound average along with the EL’s highest average ranking last year with Partizan has thus far been rewarded with 11 minutes per game off the bench for the Greens this season. Now word surfaces that he’ll be held out of action due to abdominal pain. I’m not sure if this is what’s been keeping him out of the lineup, but not having him at all means that Mike Batiste and Romain Sato will be leaned on for defense and rebounding up front. As great as Panathinaikos looks, Union Olimpija has proven they can put up points even in a grinder and I’ll not doubt the power of Stozice Arena until it fails the Slovenians. Let’s make it happen Ljubljana. Union Olimpija.