He has quietly become one of the most consistent big men in Europe, but if Andrija Zizic and Olympiacos reach their main goal together this season, expect a lot of noise coming from the general direction of the Athenian port of Piraeus. As the second-best scorer and rebounder on the Reds so far this season, Zizic has kept improving on an already-solid Euroleague career. Making the Final Four would be like a tide rising to lift both player and club to the level of Europe's elite. Zizic, just turned 27 and entering the prime of his career, says he is ready for such big things. "Let's say that I feel like my time is coming, that I am arriving to the best stage of my career," Zizic told Euroleague.net. "I am doing the best I can, game by game. I am trying to do the maximum that I can for my team. To me, what is most important is the team having a lot of success. Hopefully, we can look to the future with chances for the Final Four."
Hi, Andrija. Everyone knows that Olympiacos has marked this as a very special season with the goal of making the Final Four in Athens. Is that a challenge you guys are enjoying, a lot of pressure or a mixture of both?
"Let's say that Olympiacos is a very big team and a big organization, and it's normal that this year they expect that we are going to make some good results. In that way, yes, there's a little more pressure from the fans and everybody. They are hungry and need some trophies, and they expect something this year. We started the season very good. In the last month, we had some small problems, as happens to every team - no team is great all year - and now we're coming back after a few injuries. Now is the time for us to be at our best, with the most important month in front of us. We want to be in good shape and show everyone that we'll be in the fight for the Final Four."
None of the Olympiacos players now were on the roster two years ago. How difficult is it to build a Final Four team in such a short time, and with a change of coaches?
"Even from last year to this one, if you compare the two teams, Olympiacos has changed almost everyone. So even now, we still need more time to be together. In fact, just now are we starting to play very good basketball. It's difficult to say for sure that we will go to the Final Four. I only can say that we're going to be in a really good position to fight for it. This year, there are lots of favorites to go there, teams like CSKA, Panathinaikos, Tau Ceramica and others. Every game is tough and there are good players everywhere, so it's difficult to say you will win, but that we are going to try, yes! There's a big difference between this year and last year, but we're still a young team and lots of our guys don't have big experience in the Euroleague. But we do have big heart and a strong desire for the best results!"
You started with the Top 16 with a solid road win against Partizan and its 11,000 fans in Belgrade. What was the atmosphere like and how were you able to handle it so well?
"Belgrade is a very hot court, and it's not easy to win there. Partizan was playing its first Top 16 game in a long time, the gym was full and they were very motivated to play us. After winning one of the last regular season games in Athens against Panathinaikos, they were looking for an opportunity to beat us, too. We went there knowing how important it was for us to win, especially in the first game of a round with only six games, with any away victory being an important step to finishing in the top two of the group. From the beginning, we controlled the rhythm and we held it the rest of the way, winning by 12 at the end. It was a good result and I was happy also because we played good and smart."
Then in the Greek League on Saturday you beat Panathinaikos on its court at OAKA Olympic Hall, the Final Four arena this year. Was that another good sign for the future?
"Of course, this is always a big derby between these two teams, something you can only see in Greece. There was a lot of tension and a lot of fans, 15,000 or more. Panathinaikos has been on top in Greece a lot time and it had been a long time since Olympiacos won at their gym. From the start, the game was very tough: especially when you play in front of 15,000 wild fans it's not so easy. But we had very good confidence after Belgrade and tried to keep this going. We proved at the beginning of the game that we had our chances and kept proving it until the end. It was similar to the Partizan game because we controlled the rhythm most of the way. So with these two big wins in two big games, I hope it means that our team has a nice future."
Two road games to start the Top 16 is often thought to be bad luck, but as you guys travel to Badalona to play Joventut this week, do you see this second road game as a big opportunity for Olympiacos?
"We all know that every Spanish team is tough, but especially Joventut is after they lost the first Top 16 game. Everyone knows that this team from Badalona team plays very fast and dangerous. We'll see. We are ready. With a win on our side, we can go after another good result that will open a big door for us to step inside. It's difficult to start with two outside games, very difficult, but we're going to try to get two victories from it. Badalona lost against CSKA in Moscow, but we respect them a lot and we have to be ready."
You are having another solid season, including some of the best numbers of your career in the Euroleague. Is this an important season for you personally to prove that you are one of the best big men in Europe?
"Let's say that I feel like my time is coming, that I am arriving to the best stage of my career. I am doing the best I can, game by game. I am trying to do the maximum that I can for my team. It is very important to have good confidence, as well as good coaches and players around you. Then it is not so difficult to succeed. But I feel I am growing up, game by game, and everything looks good now. To me, what is most important is the team having a lot of success. Hopefully, we can look to the future with chances for the Final Four and the Greek League trophy."
You made only 67% of you free throws two seasons ago. Last year, you set a single-game record, 17 for 17, and this season you made 84% from the line in the regular season. Have you done anything special to improve?
"Nothing special, no. I just really don't want to miss. I don't know. When you have good confidence and good coaching, there are no problems. I caught a rhythm shooting free throws and I practice like everyone else, but nothing special. I just think it's always better to play free of pressure and that makes you calm and a better free-throw shooter."
Your new coach this year, Pini Gershon, is known for having his teams ready for the key moments of the season. Now that the key moments are here, can you feel his influence more?
"We know that Pini has big experience at this stage based on what we all saw him do other years with Maccabi. What helps us a lot is how he uses each player in the spots where they can do best. He also gets us ready especially for big games. During those big games, sometimes how a team reacts quickly - in one second - can make a difference, and he manages those moments very well. He also does a good job of correcting young players. It's all part of winning these games."
Finally, what is the influence of the famous Olympiacos fans on your team's quest to reach the Final Four?
"For me, these fans are the best in the world. They support us in every game so that it's really difficult for us to lose a game in our gym, because we play like we have six players on the court. They support us very, very much, even when we lose, and that helps us continue with the same motivation. These people here live for this club. Like I said, for me they are the best fans anywhere."