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CSKA Moscow: Setting standards of excellence
CSKA Moscow slide show
Already one of the most accomplished clubs in world basketball history, defending champion CSKA Moscow arrives at the 2009 Final Four looking to expand on its long list of accolades. CSKA is unique for having modernized a half-century-old winning tradition to meet the challenges of a new millennium. Last season, with its sixth title, the Russian giants took over second place among the most successful teams ever in European competition. A new victory would make CSKA the first club to win three titles in each of two different decades. In addition, CSKA could become just the eighth European team to repeat as champion and the fifth to win three trophies in a span of four seasons. That is not to forget a record that, merely by arriving in Berlin, CSKA has put even further out of reach: seven consecutive appearances at the Final Four, three more than any other team since the format was introduced in 1989.
For decades upon decades, CSKA dominated the former Soviet Union League by amassing 25 championships between 1945 and 1990 while making legends of players like Sergei Belov, Vladimir Tkachenko, Stanislav Eremin, Vladimir Andreev, Anatoly Asthakov, Armenak Alaschatschan, Gennadi Volnov and Sergei Tarakanov. Most legendary of all, the late head coach Alexander Gomelskiy became so synonymous with CSKA’s winning reputation over the decades that the Euroleague named its coach-of-the-year award for him. CSKA was among the early dominant teams in European club competition, winning its first title in 1961 against three-time defending champion ASK Riga. Soon, CSKA lifted two more trophies, in 1963 and 1969, as part of its classic rivalry with the other powerhouse of that era, Real Madrid. From its three additional finals between 1970 and 1973, CSKA took a new crown in 1971 over defending champion Varese with Gomelskiy on the bench and Belov as the superstar. Although CSKA always remained a force at home, nearly a quarter-century passed before it was a major European challenger again. The team reached Final Fours in 1996 and 2001, losing both times in the semifinals. In 2003 at Barcelona, the team's current streak of Final Four appearances began. The first three of those resulted in semifinal losses, too. It wasn't until head coach Ettore Messina took over CSKA’s bench in the summer of 2005 that things turned around. In Prague the next spring, CSKA bested two-time defending champion Maccabi Tell Aviv 73-69 to win its first Euroleague title in 35 years as Theodoros Papaloukas was named MVP, while David Vanterpool and Matjaz Smodis made huge fourth-quarter contributions. A year later, CSKA was back in the title game at the 2007 Final Four against Panathinaikos on the latter's home court, falling 93-91 in the closest final over 90 points in continental history. CSKA came back even better last season and stormed to its second title in three years, defeating Maccabi 77-91 as Trajan Langdon, J.R. Holden, Ramunas Siskauskas, Smodis and Papaloukas starred. The victory moved CSKA into second place on the all-time winners list with six Euroleague trophies.
In Berlin, CSKA seeks to play in a fourth straight title game - something no European team has been able to do since 1980 - and to win its third title in four seasons. CSKA entered this season as the team to beat - and that hasn't changed. Following its triumph in Madrid, CSKA underwent a roster shakeup as Messina welcomed five new faces to a core lineup made up of 2008-09 MVP Siskauskas, Final Four MVP Langdon, team captain Smodis and the club's longest-tenured player, Holden. Among the newcomers were All-Euroleague big man Terence Morris, former Rising Star Award winner Erazem Lorbek and Zoran Planinic, who was fresh off back-to-back Final Four appearances. Their experience and game smarts helped ease the transition as CSKA opened the Euroleague with five straight wins. A rough patch of three losses in its last five regular season games didn't keep CSKA from winning its group. Messina's men also started the Top 16 strong, with convincing wins against Fenerbahce Ulker and Cibona behind an outstanding Siskauskas. Despite an 18-point loss in Siena - the club's worst Euroleague defeat since 1999 – CSKA bounced back to beat Montepaschi at home by 24 and clinch a playoff spot early. CSKA would win its Top 16 group with a 5-1 record, ensuring homecourt advantage in the Quarterfinal Playoffs. The champs used that advantage to sweep Partizan Belgrade 3-0 in their best-of-five series and thus keep CSKA's new golden age going strong with another trip to the Final Four.
A new crown in Berlin would further distinguish CSKA, its coach and its captain. For CSKA, it would mean a seventh continental title, one short of tying its ages-old rival, Real Madrid, the all-time leader. For Messina, his fifth title would rank him second, exclusively, among Europe's most successful coaches ever. Smodis, the club's first non-Russian captain, would become just the 11th player to win four Euroleague titles, just the second to do so with two different teams. More important than numbers, yet another success would enhance the gold standard of excellence with which CSKA has already started the second half-century of European club competitions.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
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