His team will remain champion until another is able to stop it - whether in the 2007 Final Four or beyond - and until that moment, CSKA Moscow head coach Ettore Messina is at the top of his profession, too. Having won three European titles in the previous nine years, Messina is also poised to join a very short list of men who have claimed four continental titles in their careers, or have even won back-to-back with the same team. The CSKA boss is under no illusion as to the difficulty of repeating as champion, because he tried it twice previously, only to fall short in the second consecutive title game. He is cautious this time, but encouraged by the way his team has handled itself as reigning champions. "Prague gave a lot of confidence to our team and a lot of understanding that if we do certain things right, we can be very competitive," Messina told Euroleague.net. "At the same time, I think that something important our players have done is stay quite humble. They did not let the confidence they got overwhelm them, and I respect them for that because this sometimes is not so easy to avoid. I respect them for it as people more than as players. Now is the final test."
Hello, Ettore. Great job making it back to the Final Four. You have said before that it's often harder to make the Final Four than to win it. Does it feel that way this time?
"I believe this because to make the Final Four you have to go through a very long season. There are a lot of games and good teams to face along the way. Obviously, the Final Four has the top four teams and to win it you need to take a big step forward, as well. But once you are at the Final Four, before you go, you know there are only two games and everybody has a 25-percent chance to win. Before the season, it's different. There's a much longer way to go and you never know if, because of injury or fatigue or the level of your opponents, you will make it or not."
You are the defending champs, with a league-best 21-2 record, had an 18-game win streak during the season. Is it correct to call CSKA the team to beat at this Final Four?
"There are two ways of seeing it. One, that whoever won the year before and has made it back to the Final Four again would be considered the team to beat. Or two, that there is another strong team to beat, which is Panathinaikos, because they are playing at home, which is something you cannot forget."
How important is the experience of winning last year - especially for the 10 or so players who were there - when it comes down to playing the games this year?
"I think that the experience of winning in Prague gave a lot of confidence to our team and a lot of understanding that if we do certain things right, we can be very competitive. At the same time, I think that something important our players have done is stay quite humble. They did not let the confidence they got overwhelm them, and I respect them for that because this sometimes is not so easy to avoid. I respect them for it as people more than as players. Now is the final test, let's say. We are going to Athens with a lot of people thinking and saying that we can repeat, comparing us to the great Maccabi teams that won two in a row and played the final for a third try last season. Now, as we did last year, we must be able to isolate ourselves one more time. I read David Vanterpool's blog and I agree that we were something of an underdog last year, and that makes it a little easier, but now we have that comfortable position taken away."
Among the potentially key players who didn't play last year are David Andersen and Oscar Torres. Do you think you are going in with an even stronger team than last year?
"It's a different team. For sure, we have more scoring ability now, and more depth inside with David. Having always either David or Matjaz in the big positions gives us a more consistent scoring threat in the low post, and that's not considering that they can play together as center and power forward. Oscar is a good shooter and athlete, and even though he's injured this week, we will try to make sure he's 100-percent ready. At the same time, however, we will miss David Vanterpool. With all respect to our other players, David has been our leader for the last year-and-a-half. And he has giving us a lot of leadership. David is something special, and both his leadership and charisma in crucial moments are things that we will miss. So we are different. Only on the court in the Final Four and the Russian Playoff will we be able to say if we are as good as last year."
CSKA's winning streak came to an end in a surprisingly one-sided loss at Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Quarterfinal Playoffs. Was that loss a blessing in disguise?
"I think that during the season there are some losses that work as an alarm. They put you in situations and make you understand that you have to take a step up in order to continue to be competitive. After that loss, seeing how we played in Game 3 against Maccabi and then in the Russian Cup, I can say now that a big alarm went off with the game in Tel Aviv, but at that moment, it was just painful and we were extremely concerned. That's because never know while going through it if it's an alarm or the beginning of the end."
CSKA faces Unicaja in the semifinal, a classic underdog in its first Final Four, but with a balanced roster featuring three current World Champions, an Olympic champ and one of the Euroleague's top performers ever Marcus Brown. What do you have to do to beat them?
"First of all, I don't consider them an underdog for the simple fact of how they played in the Top 16 and the Playoffs. Second, they are the defending Spanish League champions, yes without Garbajosa now, but with Marcus Brown back. I know their ability to put us into trouble. We'll be prepared. We have to understand what to do against them and what not to let them do to us with their style of play. We will surely have a lot of pressure because most people expect us to win. We are experienced, but must remember that it took our club four Final Four appearances before we won our first semifinal, and only did that with a great second half against Barcelona last year. These memories will help us face the semifinal against Unicaja with the right mentality."
Unicaja is likely to miss two big men - Daniel Santiago and Marko Tusek - in Athens. How do you get ready for what seems like a situation where they must play small-ball strategy?
"The thinking is that, for sure if they are missing Santiago, it's a big loss. But it's more of a loss in a playoff best-of-five playoff series, for example, than it is in a single game. It can work the opposite in a single game. We have the memory of David Andersen last year, for instance. If one of the two teams decides to go small - or Unicaja is forced to do so, as everyone says - the team on the other side has decide whether to stick with size and power or adjust to the opponent. It's a delicate question, and to tell you truth, I don't have an answer right now. But I will be thinking it for sure."
You and your semifinal coaching opponent, Sergio Scariolo, are not only the only Italians in the Final Four, but you have known each other your entire careers. How much of a challenge is facing him in a scenario like the Final Four?
"Generally speaking, I never saw my profession like a chess game. To stats like that, coaches who always won against other coaches, I don't pay a lot of attention. I don't see the game between two coaches. Because of this, I have no great feeling besides being nostalgic. It's funny that we started together back in 1989 and 1990 like two young coaches driving big, big cars, Virtus Bologna and Scavolini Pesaro. My only concern, and his, was how long we would last in our jobs before losing them! The fact that more or less 18 years later here we are together in a Final Four, just means that we can both turn back and be happy for what life and this profession has given us. I have no aggressive feeling going into a game, but even less so with Sergio."
You've won two Euroleague titles before and the next season made the title game without repeating. From your own experience, how difficult is back-to-back even at this stage of being so close?
"The good thing is every time so far my team has been capable of making it again to the final game. But both my teams in those other years had something in common, which was playing a derby in the semifinal. In 1999, Kinder had to play against Fortitudo, and in 2002 it was against Benetton. We won both times, but those two games for sure drained a lot out of our team. We were not 100-percent ready for the second games. At this moment, I can only say that I hope to be in the final again. For now, my Final Four starts and ends with the semifinal against Unicaja."
Considering all the difficulty, what would it mean to you to get the second in a row here in Athens?
"It would be something special by itself. It would also be special because, after trying before two times to be back-to-back champion, I would somehow like to get it this time. But apart from that, it would be nicer for my family to win it all in Athens, because my son was so sick in Prague, which meant we got to enjoy it less together last year. It would be great for them this time, because they would enjoy it more, as well as for the fans and the club. But I don't want to think about winning back-to-back just yet."