Not many players who just turned 22 this year can say they count on experience going into the 2007 Final Four. That is certainly the case, however, with Tau Ceramica center Tiago Splitter. Confidence born of experience resonates in Splitter's words as he prepares to take part in his third straight Final Four with Tau. Confidence has been evident all season in the way Splitter plays, too. As he goes to Athens, Splitter is well aware that a year ago in the same Athens Olympic Indoor Hall (OAKA), he and Tau won do-or-die Game 3 of their playoff series with Panathinaikos, perhaps the toughest non-Final Four game of the decade. Splitter played a huge role in that series, and now that the same teams will meet again in the semifinals on May 4, he is sure his team can make it happen twice. "Above all, we all know that it is possible for us to win at OAKA," Splitter told Euroleague.net. "They will be backed by a great number of fans, but we know it is possible to win there. We did it last season, and we will do it all over again."
Hello, Tiago. First, congratulations for making it to another Final Four. Some guys wait years for this opportunity. How does it feel to be a veteran already of three Final Fours at age 22?
"It feels good, it is something very important for me. Like you said, it is not easy to make it to the Final Four and Tau has already reached it three consecutive years. The whole team worked hard throughout this year and even when it was not easy, we all made it possible."
How different was Tau's path to the Final Four this year compared to the last two seasons?
"Well, I think that out first appearance was obviously very special for us, just for the fact that it was our first Final Four. We managed to knock off Benetton Treviso in a very difficult playoff series. Then it was really special again last season, as we managed to beat Panathinaikos in Athens in Game 3. This is what we will expect in the semifinal now, a similar game to the one we won last year. Just like that game, it will be a do-or-die battle."
Will it be different in any way the third time around? Do you go to Athens with a different mindset than you went to Moscow or Prague?
"I believe so. At least, I see it in a different way. We already had a different approach in Prague last season, but we just didn't show it on court because we had a tough loss against Maccabi in the semifinals. We were not happy with the game we played. This season, we know exactly what we have to do and whom we are facing."
You mentioned the last time you faced the Greens at OAKA, the big Game 3 playoff victory that sent you to last year's Final Four. Are you looking forward to the rematch?
"It has to be special, not only because of what happened last season, but also because it is the Euroleague semifinal. I think Panathinaikos and we have two of the best rosters in the competition, along with CSKA. Both teams are ready to play a great game, an exciting one to watch. We all hope to play a great game, and like everyone says here, we are just looking forward to playing it as soon as possible."
What can you use from last season's big win over Panathinaikos ass experience to try to win this year's semifinal? Did you learn anything from that historic win?
"Above all, we all know that it is possible for us to win at OAKA. Other teams already had won there, that's true, but it is a tough court to play in. They will be backed by a great number of fans, but we know it is possible to win there. We did it last season, and we will do it all over again."
You have been almost a full-time starter during the Top 16 and the playoffs. Do you feel yourself capable of more and more responsibility despite almost being Tau's youngest player?
"Coach Maljkovic has put a lot of trust in me recently. Whether I am a starter or not, I have seen a lot of playing time in recent games and that is the most important thing for any player. When you know you are backed by your coach, everything is easier. I hope to have the responsibility you mentioned in the Final Four."
How important has playing alongside Luis Scola, an Olympic champion and the Euroleague's all-time leading scorer, been for you during the last few seasons?
"I have to say I learned a lot from him. I believe he is the best big man in European basketball. It is an honor to play with him. He taught me a lot throughout the years and we learned to play together really well. A player like Luis can only make things easier for you."
Tau underwent coaching changes this season from Velimir Perasovic to Natxo Lezcano to Bozidar Maljkovic, a four-time Euroleague winner. How important is his experience for you guys going into Athens?
"Well, he is a very experienced coach and has been through many games like this. He knows what we have to do in this game and tells us every day. Above all, he puts a lot of effort in improving our defense, in trying to make it more aggressive. That is what we will try to do in Athens."
You had a couple of your countrymen from Brazil, Marcelinho Machado and Marcelinho Huertas, join you in the Euroleague this season. Having seen how Argentinean players have thrived, especially at Tau, can the Euroleague give the same boost to Brazilian players?
"I am sure of that, even though it is not talked about in Brazil. There is an NBA-friendly mentality in my country and the Euroleague is not given that much importance, but I think both the players and the press are completely wrong. They underestimate European basketball and I think that more and more Brazilian players should come to the Euroleague to learn and improve their level."
Last but not least, in this third consecutive Final Four, what would it mean for Tau, the fans and for you to finally win the Euroleague title?
"It means a lot: it would be something historical. We all have this dream once again this season, and our fans deserve the Euroleague title for all the support they have given us. You can breath basketball in Vitoria, as you also can in Malaga, for instance. These are two great basketball cities in Spain. We will try to give back to our fans by giving our best in Athens."