Any newer Turkish Airlines EuroLeague fan – but especially a young one – might be forgiven for concluding that the Final Four is an event at which three teams compete for the continental crown against CSKA Moscow. The Russian powerhouse has qualified to the Final Four for seven consecutive seasons and 15 out of the last 16 as it continues to rewrite history in a way that is unprecedented at such an elite level of any sport. Simply put, CSKA has made a habit of something extraordinarily difficult – surviving tough regular seasons and even tougher playoffs – to compete at one Final Four after another for the ultimate goal, the EuroLeague title.
Consistent success takes more than just good players and coaches. CSKA has a winning mentality and fights for every victory, no matter the opponent, the setting or the circumstances. Such an attitude starts at the top, which is why Dimitris Itoudis has become one of the two fastest head coaches in EuroLeague history to reach 100 wins – all of them with CSKA.
This season, CSKA won six of its first seven games and reached the regular season's halfway mark with a 12-3 record. CSKA then matched those results in the second half of the regular season to finish 24-6, the best record yet under the new EuroLeague format. No team playing 30 or more EuroLeague games has ever averaged as many points as CSKA's 89.3 per game. That was helped along by the eighth-best true shooting rate (53.5%) in competition history. CSKA's scorers were deadly, and that led to a lot of wins.
During its great regular season run, CSKA relied on shooting star Nando De Colo and defensive ace Kyle Hines to anchor the team at either end of the court while newcomer Will Clyburn ran and rebounded everywhere in between. When Hines and De Colo were injured for the playoffs, the other stars on the roster simply turned up their power. Sergio Rodriguez, Cory Higgins and Othello Hunter stepped up to leadership positions while Nikita Kurbanov, Andrey Vorontsevich, Semen Antonov and Leo Westermann filled in any blanks with timely big plays.
CSKA had to face crosstown rival Khimki Moscow Region in those playoffs. CSKA won the series opener 98-95 behind 22 points by Rodriguez and 18 by Hunter while outrebounding Khimki 40-25. In Game 2, Rodriguez tallied a career-high 26 points plus 10 assists to secure an 89-84 triumph. Finally, CSKA bounced back from a Game 3 loss with a dramatic 88-89 road win in the fourth game thanks to a series-winning shot by Higgins. He led four of his teammates in double digits with 20 points as CSKA celebrated safe passage to Belgrade.
CSKA now looks for its eighth EuroLeague crown backed by endless experience, exemplified by team captain Victor Khryapa going to his 12th Final Four – a record for players. Always a top contender to win it all, CSKA brings back several stars who lifted the trophy together in 2016 and know what it takes to go all the way. A combination of top individual talent, great team chemistry and a mastermind on the bench added up to a unique winning mentality all season long, making CSKA a scary opponent for any team to face at the Final Four.