The Top 16 is open for business!
The only European player ever to win both the Euroleague and NCAA titles, Jiri "George" Zidek has been a collaborator with Euroleague.net and Euroleague.TV since the 2006 Final Four was held in his native Czech Republic. Big George, who won the Euroleague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999, continues as a color analyst of Euroleague games for Czech TV, not to mention for Euroleague.TV, where he has worked the last three Final Fours. As George returns for the 2011-12 Turkish Airlines Euroleague season, expect more great insights from an ex-champ's point of view!
Enough has been already written and said about the dynamics of a Top 16 system with just six games to decide which two teams per group will stay in the hunt for a Euroleague trophy. I expect all players and coaches to be at their sharpest as everything will count in every game. If injuries are the great unknown variable in sports, this holds true even more so in Top 16. This time of year, players show what kind of professionals they are not only by preparing themselves for the games, but also by protecting their bodies by doing the right things on and off the court before the crucial battles are played. I must admit that I expected more activity in the player market by clubs to try to bolster their rosters. At the same time, not too many Euroleague-caliber players waltz in at mid-season to have immediate impact without disturbing team chemistry. Therefore, some of the most notable roster changes now are injured players coming back to action. While Euroleague enjoyed its month off, some Top 16 teams stayed active playing lots of domestic games. Others played a lesser amount, so it will be interesting to see how quickly they fall back into the Euroleague rhythm. The next month-and-a-half should be filled with suspense, but let's look first what lies ahead in the opening week.
Seeing only Ws on CSKA's record and the fact that Andrei Kirilenko is back to the lineup, one must favor the Russian Army team. Kirilenko has been brought back to action slowly but you can expect him to go full speed from the start of the Top 16. You can also expect Olympiakos coach Dusan Ivkovic to prepare his team well. A key question before the game is how effective Olympiacos team leader Vasilis Spanoulis can be after he was sidelined awhile. He has been the key for Olympiacos so far, but sometimes a short absence like his improve a team as other players adjust by contributing more. Despite its new additions, Acie Law at guard and Joey Dorsey in the paint, Olympiacos must think of this game as a slow-down, physical and defensive battle. CSKA has an all-around star in Kirilenko, who doesn’t need to score to be valuable, unlimited scoring potential in Milos Teodosic, toughness in Viktor Khryapa and Jamont Gordon, and a reliable threat in the paint in Nenad Krstic. Olympiakos will have to play a perfect team game on both sides of the court, control the tempo and be the aggressor defensively. Don’t expect too much peace and friendship at the stadium that goes by that name in Pireus on Wednesday.
The Turkish derby between Anadolou Efes and Galatasaray Medical Park is a great cross-town rivalry of two traditional clubs from Istanbul. Match-ups of teams that know each other from domestic championships are always a lot harder to predict than other games. On paper, Anadolou Efes has more quality and depth, on top of being an established Euroleague team, while Galatasaray is playing the Top 16 for the first time as a rookie in this competition. Efes is a team with talent and ambition, one that clicks well when things go right offensively. I am looking forward to the match at the guard position where Kerem Tunceri will face Jaka Lakovic. Efes's offensive rhythm will get a major boost if Sasa Vujacic and Dusko Savanovic come off the bench involved and on target. In that regard, Galatasaray's Joshua Shipp and Jamon Lucas will hold key defensive assignments. Efes should also find a way to take advantage of Stanko Barac under the basket by giving him enough space in one-on-one situations. Efes is playing at home and has to find a way to get an important first victory.
I am looking forward to seeing how well Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani has used the break to jell his team together despite the long-term injuries of his two key players – Kaukenas and Lavrinovic. Both Bootsy Thorton and Igor Rakocevic are experienced enough and have had enough time to get into game shape and on the same page with the rest of the team by now. Gescrap BB is an exciting team that has a big upside, but also falls victims to unexpected dry spells. Siena at home always try to establish itself defensively first and then involve as many players as possible in its marquee passing game on offense. Bo McCaleb should take leadership at point and control the tempo of the game. Gescrap isn't to be underestimated, however. If the visitors prove capable of handling Montepaschi’s physical defense and are on target from long distance, we will have an interesting game.
Things just don’t get any easier for a Unicaja team that has been plagued by injuries. Unicaja just received another blow by having Joel Freeland out with a heavy sprain to join Tremell Darden, who is still making a recovery. The good news for head coach Chus Mateo is that playing with depleted roster is becoming almost expected. Real Madrid arrives with a well balanced, multi-talented group of players who seem to enjoy playing with each other a lot. Madrid will travel to the south of Spain feeling the chance to grab an important road victory. Patience, offensive balance and sharing the ball will be the key for the visiting team's success. Unicaja is capable of and will try to put up a fight. Guards Gerald Fitch and E.J. Rowland will have to attack Madrid's defense with composure and without unnecessary mistakes, while Luka Zoric will have to post a heroic effort on both sides of the court.
What a pleasant surprise Unics Kazan has been during the regular season. Charismatic coach Evgeny Pashutin has efficiently handed out roles to his players. Veteran guards Henry Domercant and Lynn Greer have been stellar, while power forward Vladimir Veremeenko has opened many eyes. Fenerbahce Ulker is a team that answered the call when things didn’t go right at the beginning of the season. Of course, the pressure is on for them with having the Final Four in Istanbul this season. Even with Roko Ukic likely out, this game will be decided at the guards - Domercant and Greer vs. up-and-coming Curtis Jerells with help from Marko Tomas and Emir Preldzic. I believe that the Unics duo will have to carry more of the scoring burden while their Jerells should try his best to restore a pass-first, shoot-second style of game that will allow his talented teammates to get going. Unics big man Nate Jawai will have an important defensive role in the game to patrol the paint, while avoiding early foul trouble, if his team is to hold steady on the inside.
EA7 Emporio Armani Milan became the last team to squeeze into Top 16 by winning a tough road game in Beograd. As its Euroleague schedule resumes against an opponent no less tough than defending champion Panathinaikos, Milan will be without its best scorer, Malik Hairston. Outside shooting has really plagued Milan throughout the regular season and I will be looking to Drew Nicholas now to turn around his lower-than-expected shooting percentage beyond the arc. Even though everyone expects a never-ending pick-and-roll story with Panathinaikos, the perfection with which the Greeks perform this aspect of the game makes it a nightmare to defend. One player who Milan will need to step up in Hairston's absence, big man Ioanis Bourousis, knows the visiting team well after spending his career with Olympiacos. Panathinaikos will be primed to apply its experience, talent and focus knowing that several teams have won in Milan this season.
A couple of the teams that have made roster changed will meet in Kaunas as Maccabi visits Zalgiris. The change in point guard was widely anticipated for Maccabi and so far it seems that Demond Mallet has been even more that head coach David Blatt could have hoped for. I am not sure if Mallet is athletic enough and has the mind-set of in-your-face defense that Maccabi possessed last year, but he makes up for lot of his shortcomings by superb knowledge and understanding of the game. If Maccabi is shooting for a successful season by their high standards, he needs to be the catalyst. Zalgiris hasn't got much to lose in the Top 16 after barely making it into this phase. It remains to be seen what impact veteran Dainius Salenga and rookie Reeves Nelson can make. I would not underestimate the power of the Zalgirio Arena crowd and motivational prowess of coach Alexandar Trifunovic to help Zalgiris a lot. Maccabi needs to come in focused, establish Sofoklis Schortsanitis on the block and let Mallet distribute the ball. If the visitors do that, they might grab an important win.
FC Barcelona Regal, the group favorite on paper, will open up its Top 16 campaign against a rookie surprise from Cantu. The Italians have the odds stacked against them in this game, but in the past have been able to catch people by surprise. Unfortunately for Cantu, by now all their opponents have learned to respect them. Even with a question mark that hangs over the status of J.C. Navarro, Barcelona is the favorite. Kosta Perovic, Erazem Lorbek and Boniface N'Dong should all attack and establish themselves on the block, where they should hold an advantage over ex-Barcelona center Denis Marconato and young Giorgi Shermadini. Another long-term Barcelona player, Gianluca Basile, will be making a homecoming of sorts while knowing how tough Blau Grana is for visitors. If Navarro plays, theirs will be a match-up to watch as these two players went head to head for years in practice.
Monday, January 16, 2012