Turkish Airlines Euroleague
July 29, 2014
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Team Focus: Unicaja
October 7, 2011
2010-11: 6-10, Top 16
2009-10: 9-7, Top 16
2008-09: 10-6, Top 16
2007-08: 13-7, Top 16
2006-07: 14-11, Final Four
2005-06: 15-5, Top 16
2004-05: 6-8, Regular Season
2003-04: 4-10, Regular Season
2002-03: 8-12, Top 16
2001-02: 6-8, Regular Season
One of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague’s most familiar faces is Unicaja of Malaga, Spain, which comes off its sixth consecutive season reaching this competition’s Top 16. But that success is not enough for the fans that pack Martin Carpena Arena every week or the Unicaja players. So this season head coach Chus Mateo arrives for his first full season with the club and all have lofty goals. Mateo, who took the position midway through last season, already began retooling the squad then with players like Gerald Fitch and club hero Jorge Garbajosa coming aboard. Since then Unicaja has added five new faces at key positions. And most importantly is the return of one of the game’s best young centers, Joel Freeland, who comes off a brilliant season. The big question will be how quickly four Euroleague rookies - EJ Rowland, Kristaps Valters, Tremmell Darden and Hrvoje Peric – adjust and perform. But with a tough and talented frontline and a deep, athletic and versatile backcourt, all the pieces are in place for Unicaja to deliver a big season and to challenge for its first Final Four berth in five years.
Mateo hands the ball to a pair of newcomers at the point guard spot. Rowland is a clever point playmaker who does what is necessary to help his team win. In addition to being a pesky defensive player, Rowland has a quick first step and good court vision. Valters is a pass-first player who has been among the Spanish League’s assist leaders the past few years, but is also a great shooter from behind the arc. Mateo has no less than five wingmen to choose from – and all of them are strong on the defensive side of the floor. Fitch has the skills and confidence to be a go-to scorer. He can get to the basket or hit from outside, but will pass up a shot when he sees another teammate open. Uros Tripkovic is a three-point shooter of the highest caliber whose experience – entering his ninth Euroleague season at age 25! – can only benefit everyone else. Darden, who is better suited for small forward, is the classic all-around team player. He will have some big scoring nights, but can also contribute greatly to victories with hardly any shots. Berni Rodriguez is Unicaja’s true leader in his 13th season with the club. Though best known for his defense, Berni showed last season that he can still win games with his shooting and passing ability. Saul Blanco is a strong and athletic player who proved he belongs at this level in his debut campaign last season.
Unicaja’s man in the middle is Freeland, who led all Euroleague centers in scoring and index rating last season. At 24 years old, Freeland is still improving and has shown the ability to be one of the best centers in Europe for years to come. Nedzad Sinanovic was once considered to be an elite prospect, but despite his 2.22 meters, he had been all but written off until Mateo gave him a chance last year. And the center responded with scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking ability that he will try to showcase again this season behind Freeland. Luka Zoric returns to Europe’s premier competiton after three-and-a-half seasons away ready to show the well-rounded game that made him last season’s Adriatic League MVP. Peric returns to Unicaja after a season on loan eager to earn minutes at power forward. Injuries may have slowed the mighty Garbajosa down a step, but his excellent shooting, ferocious rebounding and impressive basketball IQ should still serve him and Unicaja well.
There are certainly questions that surround Unicaja heading into this season. Some pertain to experience, some to health, some to age. But what cannot be questioned is the overall depth and talent level that Unicaja has assembled. When Mateo and co. have worked everything out and find the right rotation and chemistry, there won’t be any limits on what this team can accomplish.
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