|Panathinaikos will start what it hopes will be the long road to the Final Four in Berlin when it hosts Lithuanian champion Zalgiris Kaunas in both teams’ Euroleague opener on Wednesday night at the Athens Indoor Olympic Hall. The Greens look poised for a big year with a star-studded cast that is hungrier than ever after a tough season last year, in which the then-defending champs were eliminated in the Top 16. Zalgiris on the other hand spent the summer with high hopes, but has been forced back to earth after early season troubles have resulted in a coaching change and the team’s top scoring threat leaving. And that’s on top of injuries that have sidelined starting power forward Paulius Jankunas and budding guard Mantas Kalnietis. The latter, however, has returned to practice after suffering a broken arm last month and could suit up against Panathinaikos. One thing that the hosts’ coaching great Zeljko Obradovic will be sure to warn his players of is to beware the wounded Zalgiris. The team still features a host of top talents and an intimidating frontline that will be tough to deal with. Centers Loren Woods, Ratko Varda and Eurelijus Zukauskas give new head coach Gintaras Krapikas a rare mix of size, experience and depth. That trio plus power forwards Tomas Masiulis and Tadas Klimavicius could trouble the Green frontline led by Mike Batiste, Nikola Pekovic, Antonis Fotsis and Kostas Tsartsaris. Panathinaikos is expected to be without injured guard Vassilis Spanoulis, but still the hosts boast an impressive backcourt with Sarunas Jasikevicius, Drew Nicholas, Dusan Kecman and Nikos Hatzvirettas, plus rising star Stratas Peperoglou at small forward. Zalgiris newcomer Willie Deane will take up the challenge up penetrating the Panathinaikos defense, using veteran small forward Jonas Maciulis and Dainius Salenga and the less experienced Zygimantas Janavicius and Rolandas Alijevas to get the job done. A near-impeccable home record – Panathinaikos has not lost a Euroleague game at OAKA since January 2007, a run of 16 straight – and Zalgiris’s recent woes combine to make the hosts the clear favorite to start the season on the right foot. However a talented guard with some dangerous centers to feed in the paint and a hungry cast of role players looking for something to rally around could spell an upset for Zalgiris as the Euroleague season gets underway for these two classic sides.
- Eight members of the current squad have won Euroleague titles: Fragiskos Alvertis, Mike Batiste, Dimitris Diamantidis, Antonis Fotsis, Nikos Hatzvirettas, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Dusan Sakota, Vassilis Spanoulis and Kostas Tsartsaris. Jasikevicius is the only one to have won with a different club.
- Forward Mike Batiste is 28 points behind Jorge Garbajosa for 20th place on the all-time Euroleague scoring charts. He enters the game with 1339 career points.
- Dimitris Diamantidis trails Jorge Garbajosa by 3 steals for fifth place all-time in Euroleague Basketball. He enters the game with 190 career steals.
- Dimitris Diamantidis was named the 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 Euroleague Best Defender, but now he is focusing more on his offense! Diamantidis is participating in a charity event, sponsored by a company that will donate 100 euro for every field goal and every free throw made by him and Theo Papaloukas to children’s charity foundations. Diamantidis will donate his share of the the money to an institute based in his hometown, Kastoria.
- Two Panathinaikos players have recorded their Euroleague career highs against their Week 1 opponent, Zalgiris. Fragiskos Alvertis netted 22 points in a road win at Kaunas in October 22. Sarunas Jasikevicius, then with Maccabi, scored 37 in an overtime win in April 2004.
- If, as expected, guard Vassilis Spanoulis misses the game against Zalgiris, it will mark the first Euroleague game he has sat out during his Panathinaikos career. Spanoulis played in all 121 Euroleague, Greek League and Greek Cup games with the Greens during the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons, but has already missed two Greek League games this year through injury.
- Eurelijus Zukauskas and recently signed Tomas Masiulis are the only Zalgiris players remaining for the roster that won the Euroleague title in 1999. Zalgiris beat Kinder Bologna 82-74 in the title game. Zukauskas and Masiulis each had 4 points in that game.
- Willie Deane led the ULEB Cup in index ranking (20.8) and was second in assists (5.9) last season. He will make his Euroleague debut against Panathinaikos this week.
- Former Euroleague Basketball International Junior Tournament winner Zygimantas Janavicius is also set to make his Euroleague debut with Zalgiris this week.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008