|Bennet Cantu has been among the most pleasant surprises in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this season. Despite being a two-time continental champion, the club had not played the Euroleague since the 1993-94 season. Nevertheless, Cantu has advanced to the Top 16 and has a good chance to make it to the Playoffs, which could happen this week if it upsets Maccabi Electra on the road and FC Barcelona Regal beats Zalgiris. One of the pillars of its success has been small forward – and part-time playmaker – Vladimir Micov, whose numbers have risen to the occasion. Micov leads the Top 16 in assists at 6.3 per game to go with 12.7 points and 6 rebounds. Micovs previous Euroleague experience was just seven games in the 2009-10 season with Caja Laboral, which he left to join Cantu. In his first-ever Top 16, Micov is determined to fight for a playoff spot by doing everything he can, as he told us in this Euroleague.net interview. "My role in the team is really good, really big, everybody expects me to keep the team together because I am the kind of player who can do a little bit of everything," Micov said. "The most important thing is that we are winning in the Euroleague, doing really good work and even have a chance to get to the Playoffs."
Hello, Vladimir. This is your first Top 16, how are you enjoying the Euroleague season?
"It is an unbelievable feeling! Playing it with Cantu makes it special. When I first got to Cantu, nobody expected us to play in the Euroleague. We earned the opportunity to do it and few people expected anything from Cantu but winning a few regular season games. If you gave our regular season group a look, I think that nobody gave Cantu and Nancy a chance to go through. We played really well and managed to advance to the Top 16 two games before the end of that round. We did an unbelievable job and now are in a good position in the Top 16, too. We won two games at home and had a very tight loss in Barcelona. It is especially unbelievable because even though Cantu has a great basketball tradition and history and has won a lot of European trophies, the club has not done much in European competitions in the last 20 years."
One of your main strengths as a team is that you never, ever give up. That could be seen against Zalgiris, with a great fourth-quarter rally. How important was that win for Cantu?
"It was a very, very important win for us, because even though we played really well in Barcelona, we were not able to win that game. Nobody expected us to win in Barcelona, its true, but we played really well for 37 or 38 minutes, but struggles in offense for two minutes. Of course, Barcelona is one of the best teams in Europe and was better than us at the end of the game. Zalgiris is a good team with great big men. We knew that they are a really strong team and we played really bad against them in the first half. We started to shoot three-point shots instead of going inside. They managed to get a 13-point lead in the second half, but in that moment we called timeout, I switched to point guard and we tried to play pick-and-roll on one side, and then tried to move it to the other side. We know that if they guard the pick-and-roll on one side and we circulated the ball to the other side, we would get an advantage, as their big guys are a bit slow. They couldnt play defense in the same way and we rallied and managed to win that game in the final seconds."
You had a great game against Maccabi Electra and Cantu did an unbelievable job. Was it your best game until now?
"I could say it was my best game this season, yes. We played well as a team and from the first minute to the final buzzer, we managed to control the game tempo and were up by a few points. Maccabi went to the Final Four last season and of course, they are trying to be back this year, too. They have two good players at every position and we knew that the man we have to guard was Sofoklis Schortsanitis in the paint. We tried not only to double him, but to triple him! After him, we knew we had to stop Demond Mallet and Keith Langford. We didn't do anything special like we did against Zalgiris, just tried to move the ball well and succeeded. It was a really good game for us, we controlled the game tempo and every player gave his effort. It was an unbelievably big win for us."
Your fans are travelling to Desio for Euroleague home games. How important are Cantu fans in this success?
"I keep telling everybody that Cantu fans are the best in Italy, no question about it. Whenever we go one hour outside of Cantu or in Southern Italy, knowing we are several hours away by train, they come to see us, even if it is 15 or 20 of them. For instance, when we went to Napoli, they were there. When we went to play the Italian Cup in Torino, one-and-a-half hours away from Cantu, out of 12,000 people, around 5,000 of them were Cantu fans. We have a big support from them and they don't expect us to beat teams like Barcelona on the road. They expect us to give our best, just because we are wearing the Cantu jersey and that's it. No calculations, nothing but try to do your best. Of course, we are doing a really good job, so that I think this is good for them, too!"
Is it true that you never dunk? And if so, why?
"I don't know [he says laughing]. It looks I am the only player ever to not like dunking! When I was really young, 15 or 16 and playing basketball in Serbia, people asked me if playing in the NBA was my dream. I said it wasn't and okay, even if Michael Jordan was my idol – not only for me, but for all young players – I didn't like the NBA from the beginning. European basketball is totally different than that. I am not so athletic, I cannot jump much and do all those things. I never liked the NBA and I find it takes a lot of energy to dunk. Everyone jokes about it - 'why don't you dunk?' - but to me, it is just spending energy. Why do I have to dunk? Two points is two points. That's my theory."
As such a fan of European basketball, who is your favorite player?
"In recent years, it has to be Ramunas Siskauskas. Playing in the '3' position, Siskauskas is the best small forward in Europe, ever. I had the chance to guard him when I was in Caja Laboral - we were in the same group as CSKA. He is an unbelievable player who can play everything from the '1' to the '4' positions. He can shoot, dribble, pass, come off screens... he is the best small forward ever."
What does it mean for a European-devoted player like you to play in the Top 16, against the best of the best in the continent?
"It means a lot. I will turn 27 in April and unfortunately I switched clubs very often when I was young, especially in Serbia. Once I left Montenegro, my first club was Panionios, only for the Greek League playoffs and we immediately lost in the quarterfinals. Then I went to Caja Laboral just for three months before coming to Italy, where I feel like at home. This is my third year, I feel great and we keep growing up as a team and proving ourselves. We went from being ninth in the Italian League to fourth two years ago and last season we were second - and now we are in the Euroleague Top 16. We keep growing as a team and that helps me to grow as a player. My role in the team is really good, really big, everybody expects me to keep the team together because I am the kind of player who can a little bit of everything. I have even played as point guard in the last few games. The most important thing is that we are winning in the Euroleague, doing really good work and even have a chance to get to the Playoffs."
You are leading the Top 16 in assists. Are you surprised about that?
"No, not especially. Like I said, our coach knows that I am tall and a really good passer – I know how to play point guard. When I was young, I played as a point guard in my country. I grew up a lot one summer and switched to small forward, my current position. That's my advantage, I think, because I am tall and can see everything. I have good passing abilities and read the defense well. I try to do my best for the team and coach gives me a lot of responsibility on the court. I would say it is not unusual for me to give so many assists."
How do you like playing for coach Andrea Trinchieri?
"I feel very comfortable playing for him. Like he said in an interview two days ago, his mother is from Croatia, he is Italian and his father is American - he is a world citizen! He speaks my language perfectly! He is a really good, young coach. He was been chosen as the best coach in Italy in the last two years. He is very talented and a very good coach. We have three old players in the team in Mazzarino, Basile and Marconato, but he knows what to do with those players, talks to them a lot and finds the way to make the most out of their skills and experience. We don't have any big names in the team. Okay, we have Basile, who is a legend and still the best shooter in Europe, like he proved in Bilbao with that three-pointer, but he is 37 now. We don't have a player able to score 20 points and the rest of the team is just supporting him. We have a lot of players, five or six, who can score 10-to-12 points per game. And he makes the most out of the roster he has."
Looking at this week's rematch against Maccabi. What difference do you expect in the game compared to the one played in Cantu?
"It is going to be a very hard game. Maccabi already lost at home against Barcelona and this is a very important game for them. If they lose against us, they could be out of the playoffs at the end of this round of games. We will try to do our best in Nokia Arena. It will be tough because Maccabi always plays well at home. Nobody expected Cantu to do something so big and I don't think we have as much pressure as Maccabi has. Of course, we won a week ago and will once again try to do our best in Tel Aviv."
What would it mean for you to lead Cantu to the Playoffs?
"It would be perfect! I think that it will be a miracle if we manage to make it to the Euroleague Playoffs for Cantu. It will mean that we did an unbelievable job."