Another Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season means another Final Four appearance for CSKA Moscow. Since 2003, CSKA has been to 14 Final Fours out of a maximum 15. A lot of players and coaches have contributed to what already is a great legacy and the leader in recent years has been head coach Dimitris Itoudis, who has taken CSKA to three consecutive Final Fours in as many years with the club. Coach Itoudis knew all eyes would be on his team after CSKA conquered its seventh EuroLeague title last season in Berlin, Germany. CSKA has never won consecutive EuroLeague titles, and on a club known worldwide for its great ambition, that is a big challenge to achieve. Counting his years as Zeljko Obradovic's assistant coach in Panathinaikos, Itoudis is set to take part in his 11th Final Four and is looking for his seventh EuroLeague title. Itoudis said he thinks it was even tougher to get to the Final Four with the new, exciting format that debuted this season, so being back at European basketball's signature event is sweeter than ever, as he told Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net in this Final four interview. "We do know that expectations are high, but the journey and the way to do it with the new format and all these tough games, a new championship, playoffs games and at the same time our [domestic] league games, it makes it even harder," Itoudis said. "We are happy to be in the Final Four, once again."
Hello, Coach. CSKA is back to the Final Four. Your team makes it look easy, but it never is. How tough was it to keep CSKA so competitive yet again this season?
"First of all, thank you for the question and for starting our conversation talking about this, because nothing is granted in our lives. Regardless of how rich you are, how beautiful you are, how successful you are, every season, every challenge in our life is difficult and is not for granted. For me, and for my players and for the majority of the club – all of us, I would say – it is a new challenge and it's a great pleasure to be in the Final Four. Doing it back-to-back is not easy, or at least I can talk about my three consecutive years over here that we accomplished getting to the Final Four; that's a big thing. We do know that expectations are high, but the journey and the way to do it with a new format and all these tough games, a new championship, playoffs games and at the same time our [domestic] league games, it makes it even harder. We like to be in that position, and we're happy to be in the Final Four, once again."
This is CSKA's 14th Final Four appearance in 15 years. Do you think this will be looked back on many years from now as one of the greatest achievements ever in elite pro basketball?
"Well, like I said, the journey is important and being in the Final Four is not an easy thing. For sure, for that accomplishment, CSKA is among the clubs, if not the first and the only club to make that huge number, like you said, 14 out of 15. That is something incredible, that's something just to applaud, that's something to be be happy for and be happy being a member of such a great organization and being happy to help achieve three consecutive Final Fours. As I said many times – and you know, and also Mr. Jordi Bertomeu knows – that we, CSKA and me, personally, we are fans of playoffs. Because we talked about the journey and everything; it is great to play playoff games, it's great to play against all the teams, all 16 great teams in the EuroLeague. For sure, there are some other teams out there that they can, or in the near future they can, join the EuroLeague, I am sure about that. But finally, we have to go to the playoffs games, and this is what it's all about, basketball."
CSKA has seven EuroLeague crowns but has never successfully defended the title. Is that the goal, to win back-to-back, something that no other CSKA team has done before?
"Well, that's what it is. Now, you go to the Final Four to play, actually, the first final, which is the semifinal. The semifinal is a final: this is the format. If I would try to use this question and explain to you the targets that we put in the beginning, I would say that in EuroLeague we had five different targets. We still have five targets and two of them remain. The first target was to be among the eight teams able to play the playoffs. That was the first target. And I am saying that in terms of such a competitive league – we had teams out of the top eight that were kind of upsets – but it was a very competitive league. The second target was to try to get the home-court advantage in the playoffs, regardless of what place we would have, like first, second, third or fourth, because it doesn't give you any kind of advantage. The only advantage is the home-court advantage. So the target number two was to have the home-court advantage. Target number three was to qualify to the Final Four, so we accomplished those three so far. There remain the other two, of which the first, and the main one, is to play that semifinal as a final, which is how it is, and to qualify to the final. And, finally, if you get to the final, to try to get the trophy. We know that all four teams are two wins away from the trophy, and when I say that each team has a 25% possibility of chasing the trophy, it is 100% like that. Because the Final Four, that's how it is, it's one game at a time. So we want to be healthy, we wan to be prepared well and try to chase our opportunities."
Is it an added incentive to win the title at the end of what has been the longest and most competitive EuroLeague season ever?
"I think it was very, very exciting for fans and for basketball lovers. For us, it was a kind of adjustment regarding the trips and back-to-back games, as I said, combined with a very demanding VTB League. I could say the same about the Spanish League and the Turkish League, where the travel in between is an issue. Regarding the system, it was very exciting. I like the system and as I said, once again, it would be great, though, to have the also the semifinals as playoff games and a big final of playoffs games. So, the more games we have, the more excitement people will have out there for the fans, for players, for coaches, for everybody."
All four teams from the 2015 Final Four are back in 2017, with the same matchups and a lot of the same players. Of course, every season is different, but how can the recent past impact the present?
"I would say that the four teams that made the Final Four played good basketball during the regular season and, of course, the playoffs, and deserved to be there. These four teams who are in the Final Four are well-deserved. Again, I would say that every team has a 25% chance to win. History doesn't play basketball and talking about our semifinal, we have to play against a great team that has a core of players who have been together for many years, especially the Greek players. They have a lot of experience and Olympiacos is a very good team: well-organized, well-directed and with leaders on the court. We have to play against a great team and this is what it is all about. It is not about history. I respect that, but it is up to you, journalists, to make stories about the same teams going to the Final Four, with the same semifinal matchups. But we don't know the outcome; we will try to fight, play against a great team and win that game, make the most out of our chances."
CSKA faces Olympiacos in the semifinal, two teams with a lot of recent history between them. What is the biggest challenge of playing the semifinal against Olympiacos?
"Like I said, they are very united. They have a core they built in the last six, seven years, in which they had almost the same roster, with the same main players running the show. It is always a big excitement and a big challenge to play against such great teams. Whoever makes it to the Final Four is going to be in a big matchup because now, we may talk about favourites, this team, that team, but everybody had their own problems during the season, with a lot of injuries. These four teams managed to make it to the Final Four and we are looking forward to playing, like I said, against a great team."
Olympiacos has a ton of experience in recent Final Fours, just like your team, CSKA. Does each team's experience cancel out the other's or will that experience be a factor again?
"We never thought about that, but thank you for bringing this up. Like I said before, we have four experienced teams. There are three teams that won the title before and one team that didn't, but Fenerbahce went to back-to-back Final Fours and has the home-court advantage and has been built following Zeljko [Obradovic]'s philosophy over the last four years. All four teams have great athletes and great systems. I think we are going to see a very interesting, very exciting Final Four."
CSKA was able to beat Olympiacos twice this season. What kind of confidence and lessons can be taken from those wins into the Final Four?
"The regular season has nothing to do with the Final Four, because the Final Four, like I said, it goes down to one game, both the semifinal and the final. We would like the outcome to be the same as in the games we played before. Both games were tough. We played good basketball in the first game over there and the same happened in Moscow, it was a close game that we managed to win. There will not be a lot of surprises between both teams; we know each other very well, played against each other for many years and again, we know we play against a great team with great players in it. Actually, we have built a stronger relationship between us, seeing both teams' history. This is going to unite us even more. We faced difficulties during the season, different circumstances and different obstacles that we overcame. We did that and tried to stay with the same flow, all together. I really enjoyed this journey with my players. The biggest applause goes to them; we started our conversation with this, you know how tough is to go back-to-back. You need to have character, desire and also need to be determined and even stubborn sometimes, in many aspects. And I have such players. I would say thank you to them, for another journey going into the Final Four, but we are not done yet. We want to make the most of all the chances we have and go to Istanbul to try to win the games. Still, like I said, this is a big thing. Not many teams manage to go back-to-back to the Final Four and try to defend the title."
In the other semifinal, Fenerbahce Istanbul vs. Real Madrid, what kind of game can fans expect, do you think, and what factors might be the most important?
"Well, it is not going to be only one factor, for sure. We are talking about two teams that have size. Rebounding is going to be a huge part. Fenerbahce had a lot of injuries, but lately, they are all together and were very dominant against Panathinaikos in the playoffs. Don't forget that they had the momentum, Panathinaikos was playing very well at the end of the regular season, but Fenerbahce managed to win three games. They are going there in their best shape, more or less like Madrid. They were the regular season winners and were dominant enough to grab the first spot. It is going to be a great fight over there and details are always decisive. You can look back in history and see how it goes; teams may lose by a big margin and come back. For sure, rebounding and possessions – and when I say possessions, I am talking about turnovers, whoever turns the ball over less – will be decisive, as well as desire. Above all, who wants it more will advance to the final. That goes for both semifinals. And players have to show that on the court."
After so many years winning titles, first as an assistant coach, now as head coach, what makes winning the EuroLeague so special, even for those who won it before?
"I will talk to you from my heart and be 100% honest with everyone reading this. If I am not mistaken, it will be my 11th Final Four as either assistant coach or head coach, but I feel like it is my first. I have that fire, that desire and this is what we are trying to work on with the players, what it is all about. If you don't have that fire, that desire, if you don't approach the Final Four and those games like it is your first, without wish and determination, having all the impact and the experience that you gathered in all these years, that make you think and see things different, take decisions in cold-blooded situations... but eventually, you have to have that fire, that desire. If you have that in yourself, that is what makes it special. For me, it is always special and also for my players, so we are on the same page."