When FC Barcelona announced that Sarunas Jasikevicius would take over as its head coach last summer following a successful four-year debut stint at Zalgiris Kaunas - that included a run to the 2018 Final Four, a sigh of relief came from the fans in Barcelona. Jasikevicius was a fan-favorite during his playing days at the club and one of the players who led the club to its first EuroLeague crown in 2003.
After that, Jasikevicius won three more EuroLeague titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos Athens. He even played again for Barcelona for a short period. Once he made his transition into coaching, it was a dream of the Barcelona club and its fans to have him back on the bench.
"I think there's a lot to be proud of and hopefully we can build on it."
And in just his first year at the helm of the Catalan club, the team is back on Europe's brightest stage for the first time since 2014.
"When you start the season, this is one of the goals that you set out to do. You want to go to the Final Four," Jasikevicius said. "We had a good regular season. We came out on top in a tough playoff series, so I think there's a lot to be proud of and hopefully, we can build on it."
The team not only got to the Final Four, but also finished atop the standings in the longest regular season ever in the competition. Jasikevicius's credentials and the roster at his disposal ensured that the expectations and pressure were high from day one.
"You are just trying to basically build everything from the daily work. This is the most important for us," Jasikevicius assured. "Every day we come in and try to push the players to be the best that they can be. Trying to prepare one game at a time, one practice at a time, and that's how you build the season. I think this is the message more or less that we sent to them."
"Every day we come in and try to push the players to be the best that they can be."
The fact that Barca won the regular season with 10 losses and that three of the season’s playoff series went the distance to Game 5 is a testament to the league's toughness according to Jasikevicius.
"This shows how equal everything is, how every opponent on any EuroLeague night, they can beat you, and this is the difficulty of this tournament. It's extremely equal between the teams and I think it will stay like this for a while."
During the team's playoff series against Zenit St Petersburg, Jasikevicius faced his former coach at Barcelona, Xavi Pascual, who made it hard for the regular-season champs to punch their ticket to Cologne.
"There's always surprises. You always try to be ahead of the game a little bit," Jasikevicius explained. "You're trying to understand what they will do and some things, you prepare your team to expect surprises and at the same time you have to react when you see those things and in some situations, we were good in reacting and some, not so good. And ultimately, I think it made us a better team, going through this series."
Barca will meet AX Armani Exchange Milan in the second semifinal in Cologne on Friday, May 28. Milan is another star-studded team that returns to the final stage after a very long time. The fact that Barcelona beat Milan twice during the regular season by double digits doesn't seem to make it any easier for the Lithuanian coach.
"You have to learn from the regular season, but at the same time, that's finished," he asserted. "They played both games without the point guards. One of them was without [Sergio] Rodriguez, one of them was without [Malcolm] Delaney, and they are a huge part of what they do."
When asked about what can Barcelona do to defend the dangerous individual qualities that Milan will surely present in Cologne, Jasikevicius did not hesitate.
"You have to understand that they're very good one-on-one players, so we're going to face a lot of one-on-one situations. They have a lot of scorers that can decide the game, so I mean, obviously, defensively you're going to have to have a great game. But again, this is Final Four, the opponent is going to be the highest quality, and we must think about how we must be ready for these types of games."
Jasikevicius stayed in the same line of thought when asked about the first semifinal between CSKA Moscow and Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
"Again, it's two of the top teams in Europe. They have the experience of having gone through this type of game together as a team, with the same coaches that they've been playing for a while with, which it's obviously a huge factor for both of them. Huge-talent teams and a lot of guys that can really decide the game in their favor and it will be an amazing battle to see."
Jasikevicius is no stranger to the Final Four stage. He has won four of them and this will be his second trip into that territory from the bench. But having experienced it so many times on the court, he has a clear message to his players before the games start.
"Be ready because maybe some players need to play 1 or 2 minutes and those can be crucial in a semifinal."
"The advice we usually give is 'try to control the things you can control.' You can always play as hard as you can, you can always follow the game plan, you can always leave it all on the court. Sometimes you hit the shot, sometimes you don't. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they don't. But just try to help out the team in any way possible."
And that goes for everyone sitting on the bench, even the players who would normally not get as much time on the court.
"Stay focused and be ready because maybe some players need to play 1 or 2 minutes and those can be crucial in a semifinal."
And Jasikevicius has seen his fair share of Final Four games to mean it.