Unicaja will look to continue its recent resurgence when it hosts Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv in a Group B encounter on Thursday in Malaga, Spain. The Spanish champs have won three of their last four after starting the season 0-3. Their first loss of the year was one of their toughest, an overtime thriller on opening night in Tel Aviv, which Maccabi took 106-101. Will Bynum led the winners with 29 points, but the big star of the game was Carlos Cabezas, who scored a career-high 32 and dished 6 assists on his way to the Week 1 MVP award. Both teams have undergone changes since then, and their offenses are now more centered around their respected big guys, Unicaja's Daniel Santiago (9.9 ppg., 59.5% FG, 4.7 rpg.) and Maccabi's Nikola Vujcic (15.7 ppg., 7.7 rpg., 4.4 apg.). Maccabi's 92.4 points per game are the most in the league and nearly 20 more than Unicaja (74.4 ppg.). The Israeli champs also rank at or near the top in free-throw shooting (82.8%), rebounds (35.7 rpg.) and assists (16.1 apg.). Meanwhile Unicaja has worn down numerous opposing defenses with its 25.9 fouls drawn per game. Berni Rodriguez (14.4 ppg., 3 apg.), Cabezas (11.5 ppg.) and Jiri Welsch (11.4 ppg.) are the top scorers on coach Sergio Scariolo's side. Unicaja will be without playmaker Pepe Sanchez, who joins Euroleague all-time leading scorer Marcus Brown on the injured list. That will make things tougher on the Unicaja defense as Bynum (15.6 ppg., 3.4 apg.) is a big scoring threat for Maccabi who can penetrate and pass to open shooters, usually Simas Jasaitas (12.4 ppg., 51.9% 3FG) or Derrick Sharp (9.6 ppg., 63.2% 3FG). Lior Eliyahu (11.1 ppg., 6 rpg.) and Jamie Arnold (9.6 ppg., 5.7 rpg.) make up a stellar duo at power forward, with Noel Felix earning more minutes recently as well. Maccabi is winless in three tries on the road this season under coach Neven Spahija and has dropped seven of its last eight away from Tel Aviv dating back to last season. Maccabi has also dropped its last two games in Malaga and has only one win ever at Unicaja, back in January 2002. It will be interesting to see whether Cabezas and Bynum can recapture the magic that they had in their opening night duel, while the battle between Santiago and Vujcic inside could also be a sight to behold. A big night from any star player could prove to be the difference it what is expected to be a thriller.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006