Although he is making his debut on the bench at a Final Four, Dusko Ivanovic of Tau Ceramica is also the only coach who can claim to be undefeated in the event. That's because Ivanovic made it first as a player, when he was a veteran leader of the historic Jugoplastika Split, the last club to win consecutive Euroleague titles. No one should forget, either, that Ivanovic thrives on big games. After he became a head coach, his teams won the first seven trophies they played for - not to mention a few since then. All of which is to say that even though he is a first-timer on the sidelines at a Final Four, Ivanovic is no beginner. "I believe that any team who plays at the Final Four can beat any of the other rivals by playing well," Ivanovic told Euroleague.net in an interview. "There aren't many teams that are always on top. I think the results confirm Tau as a great team in Europe. It is not only a question of having good players, but you have to have a great organization that lets you work hard and well to maintain a consistent level."
First of all, congratulations on taking your team into the Final Four. You have been knocking on the Final Four door for three seasons and you finally made it. How did it feel to reach it after so much effort?
"I think we all have to be happy. We managed to qualify for the Final Four after a tough Euroleague season. That is a result that for any European team, no matter its name, can be considered great. Our goal is always to fight for titles, and to be one of just four teams fighting for this one is something to be proud of."
Even though this is just your first Final Four as coach, you had experience in two others as a player. Was it a personal goal for you to return as a coach to a Final Four?
"No, not a personal goal. I played in two Final Fours, but you can't forget that we also were in the Euroleague finals my first year at Tau, and that experience I think will help us in Moscow. When I join a team, I think of it as a step-by-step challenge. We go game by game, trying to be better in each one, and I don't fixate on long-term objectives, because they will come if we work consistently at getting better. I also don't think of those as personal objectives, only team ones."
Yours is one of two teams to win quarterfinal playoffs at home and feel that emotional moment with the local crowd. Is that something that can carry over to help in Moscow, where you have fewer fans?
"We are a team that always has great crowds, fans that always help us, are always behind us and supporting us, whether we are doing good or bad. We are sure to have our fans in Moscow, perhaps not so numerous as some other teams there, but those who will be there will certainly be a help to us, just as the support from Vitoria will be."
What can you tell about your semifinal opponent, CSKA Moscow, and what has made them so tough this season?
"Until now, they have shown that they are the best team in the Euroleague, with only one loss. It's a very complete team directed by a great coach. They have experience, physical strength, and something else important; players who in key moments are ready to take over the leadership role that is needed at that time. That is a big plus. But after saying all that, I believe that any team who plays at the Final Four can beat any of the other rivals by playing well."
Tau has faced CSKA Moscow four times over the last two seasons and always lost by a narrow margin. Will that experience against CSKA be useful in the semifinal?
"I hope that it will give my players the ability to know the players of CSKA a little better, to know how they play and know how they think and know how they breathe. That is an important factor, because in all the games we lost against CSKA, we lost in individual confrontations, by which I mean one-on-one situations."
Your team has overcome several injuries, the last one of starting point guard Jose Manuel Calderon. How important was it for you to have two quality playmakers like Calderon and Pablo Prigioni?
"What's always important is to have a complete team. Then, when one player isn't there for whatever reason, the others have to be ready to play and give more. In that sense, this team never complains if this player or that player is not there. We go out and play the next day with the same ambition whether it's with that player or a different one. We have always had a complete team and if we are in good shape at the Final Four it will be more important that we function well as a team, no matter who is on the court."
Tau has a reputation of never giving up since you arrived in Vitoria. How is it possible to motivate your players and keep the intensity in each and every game?
"I like having a team that has a lot of ambition to progress and improve each day. I like players who have winning character and want to get better every day. If players have that ambition, knowing and trying and understanding that every game and each victory has the same importance, then that makes it easier to reach the level we want to be at together."
How difficult is it to keep Tau Ceramica into the very elite of European basketball despite losing key players almost each and every season?
"For that reason, there aren't many teams that are always on top. I think the results confirm Tau as a great team in Europe. It is not only a question of having good players, but you have to have a great organization that lets you work hard and well to maintain a consistent level."
You mentioned experience in the 2001 Euroleague playoff finals, but that only applies to two of your players, Luis Scola and Sergi Vidal. Most of CSKA players have been to a Final Four before. Can experience be a factor in the semifinal?
"I believe that despite not having many players from that final series in 2001, the fact is the club was there. For the club to have that experience, and understand the structure of these kinds of games, will let us prepare calmly for this event. Besides, even though they haven't been to a Euroleague Final Four, we have other players who have performed well in other finals - like the Spanish King's Cup and the domestic playoff finals - and that gives them a similar experience to rely on now."
Your teams started out with quite a reputation for defense, but this season Tau has been among the highest scoring teams in the Euroleague. With a champion, Maccabi, that scores a lot of points, has European basketball changed in this regard lately?
"You have to score to win, true, but I still believe that you win big games with defense. What has happened, I think, is that European players have become a lot faster. We more or less play with the same systems as we did some years ago, but they are all played with more speed. The players are just as talented, but faster, and the tactics are the same, just at a higher speed. Defense is still the key, however, and I mean that in a mental sense. When you play good defense, it gives you a lot more calm and confidence to attack better."