The post-Tanoka Beard era begins for Zalgiris Kaunas when the club hosts red-hot Union Olimpija Ljubljana on Thursday for a Group A encounter. Beard officially left the club over the weekend after playing parts of six seasons with the Lithuanian champs, but he left the club in good hands with a group of young big men ready to shine. Paulius Jankunas and teenage reserve center Donatas Motiejunas are two players who will see more playing time as a direct result of Beard leaving. The club enters the game with a 1-2 record, but more importantly has won its lone home game to date and is only one victory behind the five teams tied for the group lead. Olimpija is one of those five after taking back-to-back stunners over Final Four contenders Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow in the last two weeks. Though head coach Memi Becirovic's side is based on young talents, it has been veteran forwards Marko Milic and Jasmin Hukic who had led the team to it's surprising start. By the numbers, Olimpija has not done what it takes to be a winning team, but the team's spirit more than makes up for that, as players like young point guard Goran Dragic, big man Miha Zupan and the athletic Ronnie Taylor have come through when needed. Meanwhile Zalgiris presents a big challenge for Olimpija's big men as the top rebounding team in the league. The team's weakness though has been ball-handling, as it also leads the league in turnovers committed. Point guard De Juan Collins is the focal point of the Zalgiris attack, while center Eureljus Zukauskas can also set others up from the low post. Forwards Jonas Maciulis and Goran Jurak and explosive reserve guard Marko Popovic are head coach Rimantas Grigas's top scorers. Shooting guard Marcus Brown is one big night away from taking over as the Euroleague's alltime leading scorer. If Brown puts up 20 on Thursday, he'll regain that title from Luis Scola, the current leader with 2054 career points. The two classic Euroleague squads have met numerous times over the years. Zalgiris won the last two by sweeping the season series in the 2005-06 season, but Olimpija still leads the overall head-to-head tally 9-3. Expect the unexpected, as Olimpija seeks an important road win that will show that this club is a real contender, while Zalgiris fights for a crucial home win to stay on pace for a spot in the Top 16.
Zalgiris Kaunas head coach, Rimantas Grigas
"Union Olimpija is a very motivated team. They are very energetic both on defense and offense. I would say they are better on the defensive end, as their offense sometimes seems to be stagnant. But they are a very ambitious team. They have both experienced players and young Slovenian talents. I would say the three main weapons in this team are Marko Milic, Goran Dragic and Jasmin Hukic. Our players Eurelijus Zukauskas and Dainius Salenga missed last weekend’s games due to minor injury and illness, but they will be back in action on Thursday. We have one Slovenian player, Goran Jurak, so he gave us some advice about Union Olimpija, about their defense and players. Marko Popovic also knows that system quite well so he helped us as well."
Zalgiris Kaunas forward, Goran Jurak
"I am happy to meet my ex-teammates, but on the court there will be no friends, only players, and I want to beat them. I haven’t talked to Olimpija players this week, because I want to concentrate only on the game, but we talked last week, when they played against CSKA. Olimpija at the moment is in a good shape, they won against strong teams. But we play at home, where we have fan support and we expect to win. I think the [Olimpija] team itself is the most dangerous, but they have three key players: Jasmin Hukic, who can open the floor with his shooting, Marko Milic, who is the motor of the team and the most experienced player, and Goran Dragic, who is a young and very talented player."
Union Olimpija Ljubljana head coach, Memi Becirovic
"We are facing a series of difficult games. I have spoken with the players and all are committed to giving their maximum. We travel to Kaunas with mixed emotions, since we played so bad in our last away game at Siena. History should not repeat itself and I am conviced we'll play better than we did against Montepaschi. Zalgiris at home is always a team to be feared, and for that reason, we'll have respect for our opponent."
Union Olimpija Ljubljana center, Chris Booker
"This is our second game away from home. Our memories of the first one are ugly, so we'll go to Kaunas with the idea of playing a better game than we did in Siena. After winning two in a row at home, we have to give our all against Zalgiris and show our fans that we know how to play well away from Hala Tivoli as well."
Wednesday, November 14, 2007