It's been an absolute roller coaster of a season for Zenit St Petersburg, which started hot, finished hot and in between had four games postponed due to COVID-19 positive tests, twice suffered three-game losing streaks and had to win on the final game of its regular-season schedule to advance to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs for the first time. Now Coach Xavi Pascual's men ride a three-game winning streak into a best-of-five series with FC Barcelona.
Zenit was last in the standings when the 2019-20 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its schedule for the current campaign did not look good on paper with a trip to face the top-ranked team from a year ago, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, and a home date against FC Barcelona for its first two games. Led by Kevin Pangos, Zenit sent a message with a come-from-behind victory over Efes on opening night. Then Alex Poythress and K.C. Rivers came to the fore as Zenit bested Barcelona 74-70 in Round 2.
Any positive momentum the team had built up disappeared quickly. COVID-19 ravaged the Zenit squad, infecting players and coaches alike, and forcing the postponement of four games. After beating Barcelona on October 9, Zenit did not return to action until it hosted Olympiacos Piraeus on November 5. With players slowly returning to shape, Zenit lost two of its first three games back – both at home.
The team found its footing to reel off three consecutive road wins in late November, including a 70-77 victory at TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz as it played the first of its makeup games. A 72-85 triumph at Valencia Basket took Zenit's road record to 6-0 before it finally lost in Round 13 at Real Madrid. Soon another three-game winning streak was brewing, which including wins at Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens.
A dominant stretch by Arturas Gudaitis, who had performance index ratings in the 20s in five consecutive games, including a second victory over Efes, saw Zenit improve its record to 13-6, and third place in the standings, at the end of Round 21. However, just when Zenit was at its best, it lost three in a row on the road to Barcelona, AX Armani Exchange Milan and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul to tumble out of the playoff zone.
The climb back started with a narrow road win at Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade, but Zenit stumbled again with consecutive losses against Real Madrid, at Olympiacos and against Baskonia with left the team at 16-13 and on the edge of the playoff zone entering the final stretch.
Zenit controlled its destiny and handled its must-win games in style. First, it held LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne to 53 points in Round 33 and then mid-season signing Tarik Black shined against his former team in Round 34. It all came down to a do-or-die makeup Round 6 clash with Panathinaikos. Zenit rocked the Greens 112-83 with Pangos setting personal and club records with 33 points to clinch eighth place and a playoff date with Barcelona.
The club has already made history and faces a daunting task in the playoffs against the team with the best record from the regular season, however, with former champions on the bench and the court, a mix of young and hungry players and experienced vets, great defense and good momentum, Zenit has nothing to lose and will look to continue making history in the playoffs.