The first two-round week of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season blasts off on Tuesday, beginning a stretch of 18 games over four days sure to make a big difference to the early-season standings. Let’s take a look at what lies ahead, starting with a clash of perfect records on Wednesday.
Perfect record to end at Palau Blaugrana
Six teams in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague have won their first two games of the season, but one of those perfect records must fall on Wednesday night when last season’s runner-up FC Barcelona hosts rejuvenated Olympiacos Piraeus at Palau Blaugrana. Barca has started strong at both ends of the floor, averaging 88 points per game and allowing its opponents only 68 to immediately emphasize that Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius’s men will be among the main contenders again this season. Olympiacos, meanwhile, has been particularly impressive on defense after holding Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz to just 50 points in the season opener and Real Madrid to 68 last week.
One particularly important player in this matchup will be former Barca forward Sasha Vezenkov, who has made a superb start to the season for the Reds with averages of 16 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. That scoring spree has been achieved despite disappointing shooting from long-range, with Vezenkov only making 2 of 10 three-point attempts, way down on his career average of 41%. If Vezenkov can rediscover his usual range and keep on doing everything else well, he could lead Olympiacos to a big road win on Wednesday.
Monaco's biggest test
AS Monaco has been the surprise package of the season so far, overcoming Panathinaikos OPAP Athens and UNICS Kazan to win the first two games in the club’s EuroLeague history. Wednesday night provides the biggest test so far, though, with a trip to face mighty Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. Los Blancos blasted Efes at home on opening night before a battling defeat at Olympiacos and Pablo Laso’s men will be looking to get their offense back on track after being restricted to 68 points in Greece last week. It is also the first of three consecutive home games for Real, which will welcome Panathinaikos on Friday night and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul in Round 5.
For Monaco, staying strong on the defensive boards will be vital. Donta Hall (6.5 rebounds per game), Mike James (6.5 rpg) and Donatas Motiejunas (5.5 rpg) have helped amass the best defensive rebounding record in the competition (32.5 per game); but Madrid is a powerful offensive rebounding team (14.0 per game), so preventing Walter Tavares (4.5 orpg, first in the league) from giving his team extra scoring chances will be pivotal on Wednesday.
Efes gunning for first win
All eyes will be on Anadolu Efes Istanbul (0-2) as the reigning champion heads into the third week of the season still looking for its first win after a disappointing opening night performance at Real Madrid that was followed by a hard-fought loss to CSKA Moscow last time out. It won’t be easy as Coach Ergin Ataman’s men face a pair of road games against in-form teams, starting on Tuesday night with a trip to LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne, which is sitting pretty at 2-0 on the back of strong defensive performances to overcome Zalgiris Kaunas and ALBA Berlin. Maintaining the same level of defensive consistency against the firepower of Efes is the biggest challenge yet for the French team, especially considering the champions’ dire need of their first win.
Efes then stays on the road with another tough trip to AX Armani Exchange Milan (2-0), which has started the season in fine form and already claimed the sizeable scalp of CSKA Moscow on its home floor. If Milan can come through this week still unbeaten – with Friday’s meeting against Efes preceded by a home game against Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv on Tuesday – the prospects for Ettore Messina’s men will be looking very good indeed.
Road specialist Zenit heads to CSKA
It has not been often – if ever – that Zenit St Petersburg has headed into a meeting with CSKA Moscow looking down on the men from the capital in the standings, but that’s the scenario we’ll witness on Tuesday evening as Coach Xavi Pascual takes his unbeaten team to face Dimitris Itoudis’s 1-1 CSKA. The game will certainly not hold any fears for Zenit, which is looking for a hat-trick of road wins to start the season after already overcoming UNICS Kazan and Zalgiris Kaunas. Zenit also won 11 road games last season including victories at Efes, Barcelona and Maccabi, so it will regard the fact that it has never beaten CSKA in the EuroLeague as simply a statistic to be broken.
CSKA has reacted to the injury of Nikola Milutinov by drafting in highly experienced big man Kenneth Faried and will look to use this week’s home games against Zenit (Tuesday) and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (Friday) as a chance to ascend towards its usual lofty position. Finding a way past Zenit’s always-stubborn defense (66.5 points per game allowed) will be decisive, and perhaps this will be the time for Alexey Shved, who has only made 6-of-19 field goal attempts so far this season (31.2%), to really kickstart his second spell with the club.
First wins coming up
Six teams are heading into the double round week still looking for their first win of the season, but that number will immediately be reduced by one as UNICS Kazan and FC Bayern Munich (both 0-2) go head-to-head in Tuesday’s first tip-off. ALBA Berlin and Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz both have opportunities at home to banish their unwanted winless records, respectively welcoming Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens on Tuesday. And even if they lose those games, ALBA and Baskonia will then face each other in Germany on Friday, ensuring that at least one of them will end the week with a W.
Zalgiris Kaunas will hunt down its first victory of the season under new leadership, with Jure Zdovc on the bench in place of Martin Schiller. Zdovc is returning to the competition for the first time in more than a decade after spending three seasons in charge of Union Olimpija Ljubljana, with his last game coming in a 76-58 loss at Barcelona on March 3, 2011. The Lithuanian champs visit Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (1-1) on Tuesday.