It has been more than 17 years since mighty CSKA Moscow came to town in Villeurbanne, France to play LDLC ASVEL, as will happen tonight in the Game of the Week, and almost five years since the Russian giants set foot anywhere in France for a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague game.
In itself, that's cause for celebration among the ASVEL fans, who are the first ones in France to enjoy the round-robin format, now in its fourth season, that assures all of the best teams on the continent will visit their arena, Astroballe.
That includes the defending champions from CSKA, who did not win that last game in Villeurbanne, on October 31, 2002, despite amassing a 17-3 record before that season's Final Four, the first of an unprecedented 16 out of 17 the club has reached since. So not only does ASVEL welcome the champs, but CSKA arrives with a 17-year-old itch to scratch.
Fortunately for the home fans, ASVEL has been perfect in their presence so far in the team's return to the EuroLeague after a decade away. Indeed, ASVEL is the first relative newcomer to the competition to win its first three home games since Valencia Basket did so back in the 2003-04 season.
ASVEL'S three victims to date were not just any opponents, either: Olympiacos Piraeus, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz have more than a few accolades in their recent past, and a boatload of them going back to 2003, which is the last time that any of them had set foot in Astroballe. Accolades or not, all three were rudely awakened there in October.
You often hear that teams score better when playing at home, but what has stoked ASVEL's perfect record in Villeurbanne is defense. In fact, it has the third-lowest home points-against average, 68 per game, of all EuroLeague teams right now. On the other hand, CSKA has the highest scoring average by a road team so far, 88.3 points per game.
Unfamiliarity is something of a plus for the hosts, too. Among ASVEL's players, only Edwin Jackson and David Lighty, once, have ever suited up against CSKA before tonight. Chances are their teammates will have seen a lot more of CSKA's stars than vice-versa.
A little karma might help ASVEL's cause, too. The last time a EuroLeague champion appeared in France was four years ago next week, when Strasbourg defeated 2015 winners Real Madrid, 93-86.
But enough of stretching to identify why ASVEL can compete with its better-known opposing acronym tonight. What we have learned in October is the simple fact that ASVEL can and will compete, especially at home, and does so with a defense that depends not on a good groove or a lucky bounce, but attitude.
If French teams before had a reputation for athleticism and running, this ASVEL team has been quick to recognize that to compete in the EuroLeague, you have to roll up your sleeves and outwork opponents. Your shots may or may not fall on a given night, but if bodies are flying to make make steals, block shots and save balls, you are on the right track.
In the EuroLeague, it's all about being engaged over every inch of the floor during all 40 minutes of the game. And Exhibit A in forging that ethic throughout the league is CSKA. ASVEL can have no better example to follow than tonight's visitors.
But if the home fans have their way – as they have through the first month of this comeback season – the champs will not be the only team to teach a lesson before the final buzzer sounds.