Two teams considered to be among Europe's modern elite open Group G together on Thursday when Unicaja faces Benetton Treviso in Malaga, Spain. Unicaja had to battle hard in the final two regular season games to advance to the Top 16 for the second consecutive season with a 7-7 record. Meanwhile, Benetton not only finished third in its regular season group with an 8-6 mark, but won the Italian Cup title over the weekend in epic fashion. It will be a special game for Erazem Lorbek (1.6 ppg., 3.9 rpg.), who joined Unicaja last summer and was sent on loan to Benetton Treviso less than 2 months ago and becomes eligible again just in time to play his old team. Lorbek, the 2005 Euroleague Rising Star award winner, joins a Benetton frontcourt that also features Marcus Goree (13 ppg., 6.4 rpg.), Spencer Nelson (9.5 ppg., 67.4% 2FG, 7.1 rpg.) and Angelo Gigli (7.1 ppg.). Lorbek knows Unicaja's frontcourt well, of course, including Florent Pietrus (4 ppg., 69.2% 2FG) and even his own replacement, Marko Tusek (6.8 ppg., 50% 3FG), as they coincided in the Italian League for a few seasons. Meanwhile, Goree and Gigli will have to battle hard against Daniel Santiago (11.6 ppg.), one of the most dominant big men in the competition. Lorbek is not the only player in this game to rejoin the competition in the Top 16. Marcus Faison (15.1 ppg., 57.6% 3FG, 92.1% FT) left RheinEnergie to join Unicaja while Preston Shumpert (11 ppg.) moved from Climamio Bologna to Benetton. Both shooting guards are set to go against each other in one of the game's most unpredictable matchups. Both teams are really deep at the point guard spot, as Benetton features Nikos Zisis (11.3 ppg., 4.9 apg.), Marco Mordente (10.7 ppg., 59% 3FG) and even Terrell Lyday (9.9 ppg.), while Unicaja has two floor generals and reliable clutch players in Pepe Sanchez (7 ppg., 3.2 apg.) and Carlos Cabezas (9.4 ppg.). Sanchez will try to get Faison, slasher Berni Rodriguez (11.7 ppg.) and do-it-all swingmen Jiri Welsch (10.2 ppg.) and Carlos Jimenez (6.8 ppg., 5 rpg.) involved, while Benetton has enough intensity at both wings with Matteo Soragna (7.9 ppg.), Bryant Smith (3.7 ppg.), Lyday and Mordente. Benetton has won three out of seven games this Euroleague season, including a decisive one against Eldo Napoli at the end of the regular season, but Unicaja only lost twice at home and will be backed by 10,000 fans ready to push their team to bigger heights. Both coaches, Sergio Scariolo of Unicaja and David Blatt of Benetton, love versatile players and are able to keep some surprises for this game, so expect a tactically rich game in which the winner will take a crucial first step toward the Quarterfinal Playoffs.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007