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.
As if all the big shots and great emotions didn't prove it already, just consider for a moment how unique the current Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16 has been so far.
On one side, you have four of the five most dominant Euroleague teams of the last decade - Panathinaikos, CSKA, FC Barcelona Regal and Montepaschi Siena - all playing incredibly strong basketball.
One of those teams is in each group, and only Panathinaikos, the most successful of them all, has lost a game yet. The other three have won 10 games by an average of 17.2 points. That is dominance.
Indeed, this is the first time that four teams together - CSKA, Siena, Barcelona and Unics - have finished the first half of the Top 16 undefeated.
In four of the last 10 seasons, three teams were 3-0 in their Top 16 groups; five others years, there were just two unbeaten teams; and in another season, there was only one. Altogether, 23 teams over the last 10 years had 3-0 records. Interestingly enough, in half of those 10 seasons, the eventual champions were not among the unbeaten teams after three Top 16 games.
So far, though, it's just a story of the best getting better, of experience being worth its weight in gold, of alpha dogs being alpha dogs.
But then you look at the flip side and you find a parallel story that is just as compelling, that of four newcomers, also separated from each other in the four groups, battling for playoff spots, too.
Three of them - Unics, Gescrap BB and Galatasaray Medical Park - had never set foot in the Euroleague before. The fourth, Bennet Cantu, last played in the competition 20 years ago.
It is interesting to note that all except Cantu worked their way up with success in the Eurocup. Unics is in the Euroleague because it qualified as Eurocup champion last year. Gescrap was a Eurocup semifinalist in 2009 and 2010. Galatasaray was a semifinalist, too, four years ago.
It's true that only one Eurocup team, the champion, goes automatically to the next season's Euroleague. But it is clear, too, that the Eurocup is also an incubator, helping clubs grow everything they need – experience, organization, fan bases, knowledge and more – to become Euroleague competitors.
Last night, Gescrap moved into second place, and playoff position, ahead of its national rival Real Madrid with a 24-point home win that had 9,000 invigorated fans in Bilbao on their feet all night. They can’t wait for Siena to come to town for the next Top 16 game.
Also last night, despite losing its first Top 16 game, Unics still holds first place in its group and will at least share it going into the last showdown of this round, at home against Panathinaikos.
Tonight, Galatasaray puts Turkish pride on the line at home against CSKA. A victory would not only shock the basketball world, but would also tie Galatasaray for its group's second playoff berth five months after it entered the competition through the preseason qualifying rounds.
Also tonight, Cantu visits Tel Aviv for the first time since 1984 to face the last of those five most dominant teams this century, Maccabi Electra. Going into that game, Cantu holds second-place playoff position in their group. If both Cantu and Barcelona win tonight, Maccabi would be eliminated from the playoffs for just the second time in eight years. And Cantu would be the first of the four newcomers to reach the playoffs, having knocked out one of the competition's superpowers.
Indeed, superpowers getting knocked out is becoming a theme this decade. In 2010, defending champion Panathinaikos failed to survive the Top 16. Last season, CSKA didn't even reach the Top 16 after its record of eight consecutive Final Fours ended abruptly in the regular season. This season, Caja Laboral, owner of the second-longest Final Four streak, four appearances in a row ending in 2008, was also eliminated in the regular season. If Maccabi doesn't reach the playoffs, that will make three superpowers sent home early in the last 14 months.
Of course, there are eight other teams still alive, hounding both the powerhouses and the underdogs. The likelihood is that one or more of those eight will rise up, and possibly even make the Final Four in May. Still, it's still amazing now to envision one Final Four with four of the most successful teams ever, or another Final Four with four clubs that are essentially Euroleague rookies, all very much alive halfway through the Top 16.
With the way the superpowers are playing, seeing an underdog Final Four is certainly hard to imagine. In fact, they are so strong right now, that an all-superpower Final Four in Istanbul would have to be one of the highest-quality weekends of basketball ever played, anywhere.
And an all-underdog Final Four? That would mean merely the biggest series of upsets in basketball history. And it's still possible at this late date.
Either way, Istanbul is going to be the center of the basketball universe on the second weekend in May.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net
Thursday, February 09, 2012