Turkish Airlines Euroleague
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Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
In less than a week, the Turkish Airlines Euroleague returns with a Top 16 phase that promises, as always, to be a rivetting six weeks' worth of non-stop competition. Even more than the 10-game regular season, a survival test that even powers like CSKA and Caja Laboral failed the last couple seasons, the Top 16 guarantees drama. Not only does practically every Top 16 game begin with make-or-break prospects for at least one of the teams, but halves, quarters and final minutes often prove crucial beyond the outcome. Tie-breaks have decided an average of more than one Top 16 survivor per season over the last decade. Everyone goes into this phase knowing that any possession could make the difference between life and death six weeks later, when only the best two finishers in each four-team group reach the playoffs.
What makes this Top 16 even more interesting is that it will be the last of its kind. Starting next season, the Top 16 will change from its long-time format of four groups with four teams each into two groups of eight. The new format does not decrease the odds of drama - half the teams in each group survive under both formats - but stretches it out over 14 games, more than double the amount played in the Top 16 now. The format change increases the possibilities that fans will see more of their favorite teams meet each other more often. It also allows that drama to build over three months in the very heart of the basketball season.
While we await that fascinating change a year from now, however, let's enjoy one last edition of the six-game tug-of-war that has given us so many thrills over the years. This season, it comes saturated with great subplots, starting in Week 1.
Olympiacos meets CSKA for the first time in almost four years, since the 2008 playoffs, when the Reds won the opener in their best-of-three series on the road in Moscow. CSKA not only rallied for the next two victories, but proceeded to win its second title in three seasons at the Final Four in Madrid. Olympiacos made the next two Final Fours, but couldn't raise the trophy despite an MVP season in 2009-10 by Milos Teodosic, who makes his return Thursday to Piraeus wearing a CSKA uniform. He and teammate Nenad Krstic will have to face their national team coach, Dusan Ivkovic, on the Olympiacos bench, however.
In the same group, two teams that have existed more than 35 years together in the same city, Anadolu Efes and Galatasaray Medical Park, will meet for the first time in European competition. The stage, as it happens, is Sinan Erdem Arena in Istanbul, where the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four will be start less than four months from this weekend. Efes has been knocking on the door of a Final Four for the last decade and Galatasaray is attempting a miracle to get there from the qualifying round. Several players - Ermal Kuqo and Kerem Tunceri on Efes, Ender Arslan and Preson Shumpert on Galatasaray - will be facing their former teams. Most important, the winner of their duel on Thursday will have quite a psychological edge for the rest of the Top 16, with three games out of the last five in Istanbul and another in nearby Pireaus.
GS Medical Park is one of three teams, along with Unics Kazan of Russia and Gescrap BB of Spain, that have crashed the Top 16 party in their very first Euroleague seasons. That is fascinating in itself, but the fact that they aren't under any pressure now makes all three teams dangerous. That is especially true of Unics, which went 7-3 in the regular season, won four out of five road games, and is the furthest team to visit for opposing teams. Istanbul's third Top 16 representative, Fenerbahce Ulker, has the unenviable task of making the trip to play Unics for the first tipoff of the Top 16 next Wednesday, when the temperature is supposed to be -15 degrees.
We meet again
Although it's not a Euroleague newcomer, the Top 16 marks the first time since 1984 that Cantu has made it so deep into the continent's top competition. Cantu celebrates the occasion by visiting F.C. Barcelona Regal, a meeting that revives a great tradition between the two teams. From 1974 to 1984, those teams met 15 times, 13 of them in either semifinal series or final games. Cantu got the best of that rivalry, winning 10 games, including their 1975 Korac Cup final series in a two-game sweep and the 1981 Saporta Cup title game by 4 points. The next year, Cantu bested Barcelona in their semifinal group and proceeded to win its first of back-to-back Euroleague titles. Two years later, however, it was Barcelona overcoming Cantu in the semis to end that streak. The rivalry featured such legendary names as Carlo Recalcati, Pierluigi Marzorati and Antonella Riva for Cantu, Juan Antonio San Epifanio, Chico Sibilio and Natxo Solazabal for Barcelona. It resumes - 28 years later - on Thursday, with the return of Cantu veterans Gianluca Basile and Denis Marconato to Barcelona, where they spent a combined nine seasons. Should be interesting.
Although the Top 16 is due to start with some major players sidelined, it's also time to welcome back a few players who deserve a round of applause just for making it back from major injuries. The Euroleague's all-time rebounding leader, 35-year-old Mirsad Turkcan, returns for FB Ulker almost 12 months after a major knee injury. Turkcan was averaging a double-double in last season's Top 16 when the injury struck in a domestic game. Four weeks later, FB Ulker was one of those teams eliminated from the playoffs in a tiebreak. You can only wish player and team better luck this time.
This season's top rebounder before he was stopped by an injury, Andrei Kirilenko of CSKA Moscow, is also due back next week. Kirilenko was dominating before a freakish play in a domestic league game left him flat on the court with blood dripping from his head. A shoulder injury on the same play took him out of action one month, but his CSKA teammates nonetheless completed just the third undefeated Euroleague regular season this century. With Kirilenko back, the sky is the limit for CSKA now.
And finally, it is heartwarming to see two-time Euroleague champ Stratos Perperoglou back on the court for Panathinaikos after a blood clot scare that threatened his career. The 27-year-old forward was showing off his first child to grandparents in the United States last summer before flying home to Greece. At his medical test before the Greek national team training camp, he complained of discomfort in his lower leg. Doctors identified a blood clot and spent the last few months treating Perperoglou. They recently determined that it is safe for him to play again, which allows the rest of us to enjoy watching a true pro and one of the good guys in this sport enjoy himself on the court again.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net
Friday, January 13, 2012
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