Welcome back to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most-knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes Euroleague Basketball Legend Theodoros Papaloukas; Luca Chiabotti, the former basketball expert-in-residence at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy; Patrick Reichelt, sports editor for Munchner Merkur; Alex Madrid of Eurohoops Spain; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director of Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on three key questions this week.
1- What team do you see moving ahead in the next few rounds from the four-way tie for eighth place between Khimki, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce and Milan?
"It's hard to predict. Within the range of the next five rounds, we see that only Khimki Moscow Region has three games at home and they have good momentum, with two wins in a row. Olympiacos Piraeus definitely has the toughest schedule out of the four teams that are tied with a records of 11-14. For AX Armani Exchange Milan, the issue is no longer simply competitive, but has also become mental and psychological after their six defeats in the last seven games. Khimki and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul probably have better chances of getting more wins in the next rounds, and they're also playing against each other in Round 28."
"Khimki Moscow Region has the opportunity to play three of the next four games at home, including the showdown with Fenerbahce in Round 27. Despite the loss of Anthony Gill, Khimki is playing well and had an impressive game in Milan last week. Olympiacos will face a much harder schedule, Fenerbahce will play on the road four of the next six games, Milan is experiencing the most complicated moment of its season. the next month will present a big opportunity for Khimki to take advantage of the schedule and start the last run to the playoffs ahead the other teams now tied in eighth place."
"In my opinion, the team that will stay on the top of that group is the team that is on top of it now [by point difference]. Khimki will make the step into the top eight. The Russian side seems to have found its way back into good shape. Last week's win in Milan will boost their confidence. Plus, their two direct rivals from these four teams, Olympiacos and Fenerbahce, must visit Khimki in Moscow."
"On paper, Khimki Moscow Region has the easiest schedule if we compare all four teams. However, my choice is Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul because we all think that at some point in the season the best version of Zeljko Obradovic's team will show up. They especially need to solve their problems at home, where their last five defeats have come. Anyway, despite having one victory less than the others, I have a hunch that Zalgiris will move up quicker because right now that team is more consistent than the 11-win quartet above it."
"In the near term, Khimki has the best opportunity to separate itself from that pack, with three home games – two against end-of-the-table ASVEL and Bayern, one against direct rival Fenerbahce – and a short trip to Kaunas to play Zalgiris, a team it has dominated with eight straight wins over the last decade. This is Khimki's moment to seize the upper hand by choosing its shots wisely and continuing to play better defense. Through the first 20 games, Khimki gave up 87.8 points on average to opponents; in the last five, that number is 76.4, a good sign."
2- Who is your favorite scorer close to the basket in this season's EuroLeague?
"I'm going to pick Georgios Printezis, even though he's behind 61 other players in two-point percentage. There are reasons for this. In a season where Olympiacos has a problematic backcourt and a lack of quality in creation, he ranks ninth in two-point attempts and, out of all those players who shoot so much, only four have a slightly better percentage than his. The main reason I'm choosing him? He's the only one among them who scores so often in the post without depending on his teammates. He creates many plays for himself and, whereas all the players with higher percentages are just great finishers, Printezis can still score a lot with a very good accuracy (57%) but also function as a creator so that his teammates can get open shots."
"Tornike Shengelia of Baskonia. I don't consider in my ranking the pick-and-roll alley-oop players because the passer deserves more credit than the scorer... Shengelia has a lot of big moves around the basket. He can score one-on-one facing the basket. He can score posting up. He is quick and fast and he is a good passer. I also really like Jordan Mickey of Real Madrid, a young player who will dominate around the basket in the future."
"Honestly, I am a big fan of experience. Therefore, my choice is Nikola Mirotic. Not always spectacular, but he is mostly doing the right thing. And he is the leader we all could expect. He can make the difference for Barcelona in the approaching crunch time of the season."
"Dancing in the low post or playing close to the basket are just two of his many virtues, so I choose Toko Shengelia as my favorite. The Georgian shows determination when facing the rim and is also one of the most powerful finishers in the EuroLeague. He is a beast. If you want proof, ask Nikola Mirotic about Toko's game-winning dunk against Barcelona."
"I'll take this season's leader in two-point accuracy, Ioannis Papapetrou of Panathinaikos, who is making those shots at an impressive 70.4% rate. Players who achieved that rate in the past were often super-sized centers who dunk a lot. Papapetrou may be the best cutter in the EuroLeague, can dunk if he has to, but usually exploits the gaps created in the modern game by the spacing of three-point shooters. It helps immensely to have a consummate passer like Nick Calathes who sees those gaps, too."
3- Which team will win Thursday's big showdown between CSKA and Barcelona? Why?
"The way the first game between the two teams turned out in Barcelona confirms, in itself, how unpredictable the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is now. Who was expecting that CSKA Moscow would win by 29 points in Barcelona? Not even coach CSKA boss Dimitris Itoudis, I believe. Also, both teams have great motivation. The home team wants to have a good chance as they contend for the top four places, and Svetislav Pesic's team won't have forgotten their crushing defeat at Palau Blaugrana and the opportunity to separate themselves by three wins from the defending champions. I don't have any epiphanies as to who the winner is going to be, but I'm hoping that we are going to get a close game with a lot of suspense that will be decided in the last possessions."
"I rationally favor CSKA Moscow not only because it dominated Barcelona – and above all, its guards – in their first match, but also due to its home-court advantage. At the same time, Barcelona is playing very well, coming off six victories in row, and has recovered Cory Higgins from injury. It is time for Barcelona, which has lost six games so far, four against the top teams in the league, to get a big win like the one it conquered in Round 1 against Anadolu Efes Istanbul. It wouldn't be surprising if Barcelona won in Moscow, but CSKA remains the favorite."
"Definitely, Barcelona. The Catalan side has most of its injured players back on board now, and this has stabilized its game on a great level. Six wins in a row, culminating in the road win in Athens, are the best sign for that. Plus, they have in Svetislav Pesic probably the best and most experienced motivator of the EuroLeague."
"After winning the last six games, Barcelona is in its best shape in almost four years under the new format. In Round 25, the Blaugranas ended a five-year drought in Athens. Although their challenge is bigger this week – they haven't beaten CSKA in Moscow since 2012 – I see Barcelona winning. Svetislav Pesic's team will try to avenge the blowout defeat they suffered at home in November and take a three-victory difference with the Russians."
"CSKA (17-8) has missed the playoffs only once in 15 years, started all 14 of its series with home-court advantage, and reached the Final Four every time. Right now, it's in a race with Maccabi to keep that streak going, but a win against Barcelona (19-7) would go a long way toward CSKA expanding that fight to include not just fourth place, but third, which is where Barcelona would drop with a loss on Thursday. With its previous win in Barcelona, CSKA would then be just a victory from taking over third place. That and its home-court advantage would seem to be enough motivation for CSKA to keep this win in Moscow."