Lithuania is well known as a country with a true passion for basketball. However, it has been some time since the Final Four was blessed with the presence of a Lithuanian team. That drought was put to an end this season by Zalgiris Kaunas, which has returned to the Final Four 19 years after it last took part in – and won – the continental showcase.
A feared powerhouse in Europe some 30 years ago when the likes of Arvydas Sabonis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis starred for the team, Zalgiris took a lower profile after they left, then surprised everyone by breaking out in 1999 to win its first – and to date only – EuroLeague title. Since then, the team has seen some fatter and some leaner years, but nobody can deny that its confidence in local talent was only matched by the warrior hearts featured by all players who have worn the green jersey throughout the years.
That philosophy only got more powerful when local hero Sarunas Jasikevicius took the reins as head coach two-plus years ago. In his first full season pacing the sidelines, Jasikevicius managed to push Zalgiris to 10th place in the regular season, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year, with a core of dedicated players who stayed plus a few key additions, the Lithuanian champs not only made the playoffs, but also managed to advance to the Final Four in just four games by eliminating mighty Olympiacos Piraeus.
Captain Paulius Jankunas and Kevin Pangos were the cornerstones during most of the regular season, which saw the team start with a 2-3 record. Not long after that, Zalgiris exploded for a five-game winning streak during December that gave the team a 10-5 mark at the midway point of the regular season. Jankunas, the undisputed team leader, was tabbed as EuroLeague MVP for December. Aaron White and Arturas Milaknis also played big roles in a team effort that allowed Zalgiris to finish the regular season in sixth place with an 18-12 record, which was just one victory fewer than third-placed Olympiacos.
In the playoffs, Brandon Davies exploded and Zalgiris won the first game in Piraeus to steal home-court advantage in the series. Despite losing Game 2, Zalgiris relied on its character and an adoring home crowd to take consecutive victories and punch a ticket to Belgrade. In Game 4, Pangos had 21 points and Edgaras Ulanovas 20, while Davies was later named EuroLeague MVP for April.
Everything from here is uncharted territory for this Zalgiris team. This is a new team with a renovated spirit and huge ambitions. Jasikevicius, a Euroleague Basketball Legend on the team bench, knows well what it takes to win at the Final Four: he won four as a player with three different teams last decade. He will surely instill that ambition into a group of players that knows they have nothing to lose and everything to win in Belgrade. That, combined with the Zalgiris fighting spirit, can bring all kinds of surprises, especially at the Final Four.