Fenerbahce's non-champs take the stage

Jan 26, 2018 by Frank Lawlor, Euroleague.net Print

The new 30-game regular season format has done wonders to bring the best clubs in Europe to fans everywhere on the continent and simultaneously ensure that, because every team plays every other one at least twice, the road to a title is the fairest it can be for all of them.

But for the clubs that have dominated European basketball over the years, the ways in which they measure success have not changed.

When everything is said and done in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague each season, there is still room at the top for just eight playoff teams, half that many Final Four participants, and just one champion, The arrival of Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul as a regular Final Four qualifier since 2015 has meant that other teams do not enjoy that privilege anymore. One of those teams has been FC Barcelona Lassa, who is Fenerbahce's guest in tonight's Game of the Week for Round 20.

Going back to its first Final Four appearance in 1989, the second year in which that format became the standard for determining a continental champion, Barcelona never went three seasons in a row without appearing in the big dance – until now.

Barcelona's Final Four drought is actually shorter than that of the team with the most titles under that format, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, and equal to that of the second team, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. Like Maccabi, Barcelona's last hurrah in the event was 2014, which means its absence coincides exactly with Fenerbahce's presence in the Madrid, Berlin and Istanbul editions over the last three seasons.

What's more, Barcelona last season lost its 11-year run of making the playoffs, which required a thorough rebuild of the team. However, through 19 rounds this season, Barcelona actually has a worse record at 7-11 than a year ago, although it sits the same three victories behind the last playoff spot going into tonight's game.

It would be a lot to ask Barcelona – who is without legend Juan Carlos Navarro tonight and heard earlier this week that its top scorer, center Kevin Seraphin, will miss several more games with a knee injury – to turn its season around tonight on the home floor of the defending champions, who are streaking at four wins in a row.

But if Barcelona's injuries last season were insurmountable, it would do well now to refuse any excuses, as the biggest clubs always do, by looking at the example of a Fenerbahce team that has joined that elite recently.

Only one of last year's champions, Luigi Datome, has played in every game so far. Nikola Kalinic has been on the court for just 8 minutes all season. Ali Muhammed missed the first eight games and since then is playing and producing less than half of what he did last year. James Nunnally is on the sidelines now for a month, while Jan Vesely, Kostas Sloukas and others have missed a game here and there.

In many ways, newcomers get a lot of credit for Fenerbahce being in a battle for second place despite Vesely being the only one of last season's Final Four starters still playing the role he had then. Although Vesely continues to lead the champs in scoring and performance index rating, three of the newcomers have paced the current streak, during which Fenerbahce has risen from a tie for fifth place to a tie for second.

Jason Thompson's double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, plus 4 assists and a block helped get the streak started against Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz. He then kept it going with 13 points on the road to beat Valencia Basket in a game that Vesely missed and scored 14, his season high, at home to top Panathinaikos.

Nicolo Melli had double-digit rebounds against Valencia before perfect shooting plus 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a comeback win over Anadolu Efes Istanbul last week. He now leads the team in rebounding with 5.4 per game.

Marko Guduric was averaging 14 minutes and 4.2 points when Nunnally went down after 8 minutes of January's first game, against Baskonia. Since then, he is playing 27 minutes and scoring 13.5 points per game while missing just 3 of 14 two-point shots and 1 of 7 free throws.

The misfortune of a second major injury – Kalinic had the second-highest PIR at the Final Four last season, while Nunnally leads the EuroLeague in three-point shooting accuracy in this one – did nothing to stall Fenerbahce, not even a little. The effect seems to have been the opposite. Other players were ready, willing and able to step up – and did just that.

Those players may not have been the champions from last year, but they certainly have proved that they, too, are all about defending the title. And there's a lesson in that for any team aspiring to replace Fenerbahce at the top.