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.
If you have any doubt that we are witnessing yet another Turkish Airlines Euroleague season that raises the bar on drama levels, just look at the Top 16 situation as it stands right now.
Three teams that never dribbled on a Euroleague court before this season and another that hasn't done so for decades are alive. What's more, two of those four upstarts won on Wednesday night in their next-to-last Top 16 games before the playoffs.
Gescrap BB saw 10,000 fans hit the roof in Bilbao, Spain when a classy veteran, Raul Lopez, hit a magic shot on the buzzer to beat previously undefeated Montepaschi Siena, 60-59. The game was a defensive thriller. The highest lead was 2-8 for Siena after 5 minutes. The biggest difference after that was 25-30 midway through the third quarter. During the last 15 minutes, there were 9 more ties and 11 more lead changes, including Bootsy Thornton putting Siena ahead with 6.4 seconds left, only to see Lopez move the Men in Black within a whisper of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Galatasaray Medical Park delivered itself to the doorstep of the playoffs by defeating cross-town rival Efes Pilsen 64-56 before a packed house of 11,300 fans in Istanbul. Everyone who stepped on the court contributed for Galatasaray, whether rebounding, scoring, blocking shots or making steals. Six different Galatasaray players had 2 or more assists. From humble beginnings as a qualifying team, Galatasaray will make the playoffs if it wins the last Top 16 game at Olympiacos next week.
Two more new faces get their chance tonight
Unics Kazan of Russia could seal a playoff spot one week early if it wins in Istanbul against Fenerbahce Ulker. Even losing tonight by less than 5 points, Unics would advance if Panathinaikos wins at home against EA7-Emporio Armani Milan. Unics, by the way, has lost just two road games out of seven so far, a remarkable record for the Euroleague team with the longest distances to travel. Unics is also the oldest team in the Euroleague, with an average roster age of 31. Keep an eye on the Unics guys who have won big things before – 32-year-old center Aleksey Savrasenko, a three-time Euroleague champ, and 36-year-old forward Kelly McCarty, a former Eurocup title-game MVP – to try to lead Unics by their experience to the first playoff berth among the rookie teams.
And in tonight's Game of the Week, it's déjà vu all over again as Bennet Cantu welcomes F.C. Barcelona Regal to its corner of Italy for the first time in 28 years. These teams faced each other 15 times between 1974 and 1984, with Cantu winning 10 games. Two of those victories came in Korac Cup and Saporta Cup finals against Barcelona, which was looking for its first European trophy of any kind. Then, in 1982, Cantu eliminated Barcelona in the semifinals on the way to back-to-back Euroleague titles. Barcelona waited two more decades, until 2003, to win its first Euroleague.
If you think those precedents are just ancient history, take a look at the Cantu fans tonight and listen to what their coach, Andrea Trinchieri said before the season. Cantu is unique among the four "newcomers" because it has recovered a Euroleague tradition it had 30 years ago, and never forgot.
"This is a very small town, with great tradition, and everybody knows what happened," Trinchieri said. "The unique thing is we had 30 years of darkness. We were not on the big scene, and low budget, you know, struggling. And the fans here and the people understood the moment and always supported the team, even if we were not on the grand stand. We were struggling, the team was trying to do the best. Now, after 30 years, to go back to the grand stand that is Euroleague is something huge."
Cantu has played huge, winning seven of eight home games so far this season. An eighth would prove that solid tradition and generations of devoted fans are ingredients to winning. Two players who will lead Cantu into battle tomorrow are veterans Gianluca Basile, who won his only Euroleague title with Barcelona two years ago, and Denis Marconato, who played in a Final Four with Barcelona, but never won the crown. Both knew what history meant when they joined Cantu's effort to re-live the glory days.
"Players know that here there is tradition," Trinchieri said. "So when they come to Cantu they come to a place where basketball is the core business of the city - of the town, I can't say city. It's different because, when you look in the gym, you see some trophies, you see that we won the former Euroleague. So I always believe it is easier for a player or coach to do his job in a place where everyone knows what we are talking about."
What we are talking about, a week before the end of the Top 16, is something unprecedented, not just for the Euroleague, but for almost any pro competition of similar scope and prestige.
Never before Galatasaray has a qualifying team reached Week 6 of the Top 16 with its fate in its hands. Only once since the playoffs started in 2005 has a Euroleague newcomer reached them. All four of this year's newcomers can still do that. Only twice in since Final Fours began deciding European champions in 1988 have newcomer teams reached the Final Four: Estudiantes of Spain in 1992 and Montepaschi Siena in 2003. All four of this year's newcomers still hold that possibility today.
Of course, all could still miss the playoffs, too. But even if that were to happen, the thrill ride they have taken us on has already been worth it. Where the ride stops, nobody knows, but as the saying goes, half the fun is getting there.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, February 23, 2012