|For three consecutive years, he was a combination of Final Four starter, all-Euroleague selection, MVP or rebounding champ - often several in the same season - and in his return to the competition after a one-year absence, forward Mirsad Turkcan of Ulker is doing what he does best yet again. Leading the Euroleague in rebounding and ranked sixth in performance rating, Turkcan has been the surest thing in an otherwise unpredictable season for Ulker. With big wins last week, however, Ulker's fortunes may be improving. That, for sure, is what Turkan believes, as he makes clear in this Euroleague.net interview, saying that Ulker is ready for one crucial game after another as it tries to save itself a Top 16 qualification in Group C.
Last week was the best of the season for Ulker, with key wins against Pau-Orthez in Group C and Efes in the Turkish League. Do you feel like things are getting better for the long term?
"Yes, I do. I think we had a very difficult two or three months, with injury problems and with trying to find good big guys, after we brought in three different ones. No one knew each other to start with because we were 11 players coming from different teams last year. We didn't know how to share the ball well, things like that. But we've worked hard for these three months, and now it's like after the rain, I can feel the sun coming out somewhere. Now, we are starting to play much better. Marcus Haislip and Jeff Trepagnier and Vrbica Stefanov and our captain Ibrahim Kutluay, all of them are working for the team, and it shows. Now, we look better on the court and we know each other better than two months ago. We are starting to win the important games. We are first in the Turkish League and we keep our small - maybe getting bigger - chances for the Top 16."
Everyone knows that Ulker's expectations were high entering the season, until the injuries hit. Has it been difficult dealing with a losing situation until now?
"Yes, of course. Everybody here has high ambitions. You start the season with expectations, but basketball is not so simple. For instance, I played like six, seven seasons away in other parts of Europe, and coming back to my country, I needed time for adapting, even knowing the language and the people. Then you have an American guy, a Croatian guy, a guy from Macedonia, and they have to adapt, too. And also adapt all of us to a new team after all walking in like strangers. Like I said, now it is better. But Kutluay started injured, same as our center signed in the summer, Holman, who is out nine months, and now I have been three weeks with a leg problem. But we just work together and we have a good atmosphere now. We just need to keep our fans happy and focus on the next four Euroleague games."
Did previous successes in the Euroleague until now - MVP, all-Euroleague selection, Final Fours with two teams - give you confidence even when Ulker was 1-5 in December?
"Of course, because I had - well, not the same exact situation, but a close one in the past, with Montepaschi. That season we were a new team in the Euroleague and had a really bad start, also. But we made the Top 16 on the last week of the regular season and then had a great time in that round and made the Final Four, where we lost our semifinal to Benetton in the last 30 seconds. So I think that we have to make the Top 16 first. But if we get there, we are going to have the same chance as all 16 teams."
Last week's was a critical victory against Pau-Orthez. The next game, at home against Real Madrid, is just as critical. The next one after that will be the same. What is the team's mentality playing one crucial game after another?
"We are putting all our concentration on these next four games. Following the Pau-Orthez game, we were just as focused on the Turkish League game against Efes because we wanted to get our confidence back. Now, the Real Madrid game is very big, a key game for us, and then Partizan. I think all these games are key ones for making the Top 16. I speak with my teammates and they all understand how important this is. I think we'll put ourselves together on Wednesday to start to play what are for us the final four games to make the Top 16, and we have to treat them like Final Four games. Siena and Partizan still have chances, like we and Pau-Orthez do, to take fifth place. But I think we have the best chances now that we have our confidence back."
Speaking of confidence, Ulker hasn't had much at home this year, winning just once at Abdi Ipekci. Is beating Efes there over the weekend the kind of victory that can change that situation?
"That was it, exactly. We lost our confidence at home. We lost the opening game there against Panathinaikos and then lost two other games badly, to CSKA and Unicaja. But when you beat a good Euroleague team like Efes, you can get that confidence back. I think it will be easier for us at home against Real Madrid on Wednesday. That doesn't mean that we don't fight for every ball and every rebound. Any team in Europe can beat you these days, especially any Euroleague team. But we played the right way in our weekend game against Efes. We wanted it more and we got it. This is a good step and can give us momentum for these two Euroleague games we have ahead of us at home."
Since your injury before the holidays, you have come off the bench in the last two games. How has that situation developed?
“I spoke with the coach about it, and I have been taking therapy for my problem with the leg. I needed to rest it for two weeks. But I don't like to leave the team alone now in this important time. With the club management and the coach we agreed that I would keep playing to help the team at this important moment. Everyone here, like I said, has big ambitions and I wouldn't like to step away now. Maybe if we make the Top 16 sooner, I can take some rest and come back with full power for the next round."
You are now leading the Euroleague again in rebounds, also ranked sixth in the average performance rating. After a year away in the ULEB Cup, did you expect to return to the Euroleague and do so well again?
"Well, I just really enjoy coming back to play in the Euroleague again. It's something different when you play a Euroleague team. There are no weak ones. You can see that in our group, where everyone can beat everyone. That gives me motivation. I came to Ulker this year to come back to the Euroleague. I am happy to be in with the leaders and best rebounders, sure, but for me, I am just focused on making Top 16 because I know the Ulker people have lots of ambition and projects for the future. So I will just try to do my best to step on court and help my friends."
You mentioned how long it was since you played a season in Istanbul. What has it been like to return home to play?
"It is a special season for me, and even more special after I got married a month ago. So now I don't have the time to go around and see all the friends like I used to. After practice, like any newlywed, I want to go home. But I love Istanbul, and I believe that everyone likes to be in their home city, so everything is great and it will be even better if we can play better basketball."
And have you considered that maybe Ulker will play the last regular season game at home against Montepaschi - where you, coach Ergin Ataman and point guard Vrbica Stefanov all were together - in a do-or-die situation to make the Top 16?
"That would be a really big and special game. I think we have the better team and we showed that against them in Siena. But Montepaschi is a good organization with a great coach and they always play well in the important games. We will go to fight for that one like we did against Efes. Because it is my ex-team, I will want to win more, but if it happens, we will just have to play better that day to get to the Top 16. I can hope we will be better, if they play better that day, I will wish them well. But whoever we play, I just wish for ourselves to be in the Top 16 and right now I think we have the best chance."