By: Sam Meyerkopf / @euro_adventures

We’ve got 16 teams left in the Euroleague competition.  All 16 have been properly seasoned with some extra domestic league play over this three week break from the Euroleague, and are ready to be cooked in some Top 16 broth.  With one day until these teams start battling it out for playoff spots, let’s take a look at the category and ranking each team falls into when discussing aspirations from here on out.

“This Dream Can Only Last So Long”

16. Zalgiris Kaunas  

We have yet again been treated to another fantastically eventful season in Kaunas.  Mad Vlad (Owner  Vladimir Romanov) has been up to his usual tricks, treating the teams head coaching position as if it was a ski lift, with people continually getting on and off.  Zalgiris has been able to fight through this craziness to advance to the Top 16.  Even though they started out a lackluster 2-6 and were put in a “must win” situation for their last two games, they came out victorious.  With Ty Lawson’s inability to adapt to European ball, departed, Mantas Kalnietis has been freed of sharing the ball with the former Tar Heel and he’s taken the Zalgiris offense to a much more respectable level.

While the joy of advancing is nice, the dispar on many Zalgiris fan’s faces could be seen all across Europe after the Top 16 draw.  Maybe the weakest team to qualify, had been put into a group with Barcelona and Maccabi.  So barring any Sonny Weems 40 point outings, their future elimination seems emanate.  Reeves Nelson might put a small, tattoo sized dent into this fate, but getting Zalgiris to the playoffs is going to be a whole lot more daunting than getting UCLA into the big dance.

15. Galatasaray Medical Park

Great Fans + A Crappy Regular Season Group + Furkan “The Masked Beast” Aldemir = A Top 16 Berth.  Galatasaray has four Euroleague wins this season, all against either Asseco Prokom and Union Olimpija.  The two teams Nick and have argued all season about whether which was the worst out of the 24 Euroleague teams.  They are here now because they were nicely selected into one of the worst bottom halfs of a Euroleague group in recent memory.

Yes they almost beat Unics and Siena at home, and made a great fourth quarter comeback versus Barcelona, but they just don’t have the talent and depth to go much further.  The only teams they scored more total points than in the Regular Season, were you guessed it, Prokom and Union.  In a Group E where CSKA is the only “I’d be shocked if they don’t advance” team, the competition for second place will be fierce.  And although Anadolou Efes and Olympiacos have holes too, they aren’t quite the size of the one that encompasses the Galatasaray’s scoring problem.  They don’t have a single guy averaging over 10 points a game and Jaka Lakovic seems to be the only threat to go off any given night.

My only wish for this tough, fight til the death Galatasaray squad is that when Efes travels across town on February 22nd, the place becomes so loud that Efes can’t hear each other from a whisper away.


14. Unicaja

I finished writing three paragraphs about how an attacking Joel Freeland could be enough to put Unicaja in a place where advancing seemed like a decent option.  But after finding out Freeland will be sidelined for at least the first two weeks of the Top 16, I had to re-neg.

Freeland is perhaps the best offensive big man roaming the continent and he still hasn’t put on his overly-consistant hat yet this season. He has hung out a little too much on the perimeter and his pick-n-roll partners have not been able to properly feed the cutting Englishman correctly.  But who will they feed now?  Luka Zoric is having a hell of a year and Nenad Sinanovic is doing his best to match his play with his height, but the guard and wing play has left a lot to be desired.

Termell Darden, the team’s best perimeter defender is still out with his injury and that leaves just too many shots on the table for Gerald Fitch to take.  Unicaja has only one win against a Top 16 team, at home in Week 2 against Zalgiris, not the most impressive Regular Season.So if Unicaja can manage to grab a win in the games Freeland is out, then there is a chance, but if Joel comes back to an 0-2 or 0-3 hole, I’m not sure even he can climb fast enough out of that.

“Wait This Kid Is Cool Now?”

13. Bennet Cantu

One of the most wonderful surprises of the Regular Season was the emergence of Cantu.  Every home game they played was a close, nail biting game complete with a raucous fan atmosphere. Cantu seemed to have a knack for coming up with huge plays at the end of games and ended up barely making it out of the dogfight that was Group A.

Now the task at hand seems more daunting than space travel to Mars.  Cantu must climb two of Europe’s tallest and most celebrated mountains (Barcelona and Maccabi) to have a shot at playoff glory.  With Marko Scekic looking to be out for all of the Top 16 (after missing the last half of the Regular Season), Cantu will find it tough to go up against the big bodies that Barcelona and Maccabi deploy at will.

Cantu currently stands 5th in the Italian League and come fresh off a 16 point whipping from the current owner of 13th place, Fabi Shoes Montegranaro.  Not exactly the best way to get yourself ready for this round of play.

12. UNICS Kazan

We really don’t quite know how good this team is.  They lucked out by drawing into Group D, beat a few cruddy to semi-cruddy teams (except the the road win versus Siena, which was very nice), and now find themselves in a group where second place can easily be had.

We know Henry Domercant and Terrell Lyday can score and that Nathan Jawai is really big.  But now that UNICS has made it to the Top 16, they need to prove that they are  worthy of this honor.  I saw this team get beaten, burned and conquered by Barcelona, but then again it is Barcelona, but UNICS showed me no heart.  The addition of Bostjan Nachbar should pay dividends later in the Top 16, but it will take a few games for Boki to get comfortable.  As Group G unfolds we’ll get a real chance to see if in fact UNICS really is this good, or if their invitation this far was more scenario than skill.

11. Gescrap Bilbao Basket

It all came down to one game, and Bilbao won it.  They topped Caja Laboral in the last game of the Regular Season and now find themselves sitting being invited to cool upperclassmen parties they formally weren’t privy too.

Marko Banic has crept into All-Euroleague debates and D’Or Fischer has regained that shot blocking prowess that made him one of Europe’s best rim protectors.  The frontline players are there, but the old man depth and inconsistent guard play has allowed the public to bestow the “inconstant” label on Bilbao.  Even though they were able to claw to a respectable 5-5 record in Euroleague play, their 5-9 record in the ACB leads to some troubling concerns.

With Group F being played only in Spain and Siena, Bilbao seems to have gotten an unlucky draw.  Spanish opponents have seemed to figure out the men in black, and Bilbao will have to do some nifty scheming to take care of future opponents Real Madrid, Unicaja, and Montepaschi Siena.  One silver lining, I picked them to advance in our instant reaction podcast to the Top 16 Draw.  Let’s ascend to Cooldom together Bilbao, it’s only a scoring guard and a badass attitude away.

“He Looks Good But I Heard His Personality Sucks”

10. Armani Milano 

Ioannis Bourousis, Antonis Fotsis, Malik Hairston, Leon Radosevic, Omar Cook, Drew Nicholas; did Milano put on a lot of makeup or do they actually look the part?  I was fooled by this team before the season when it looked like a giant offseason of big name free agent acquisitions would propel this team to new heights.  Not the case.  If the NBA Lockout waits a couple more weeks to call in a locksmith and get the situation figured out, Partizan keeps Nikola Pekovic for a few more games and Milano never makes it here (Gallinari stays over too but he’s not the difference maker Pek is).

It’s so tough to pick against guys with such name value and just look like would make a good team, but don’t be fooled again.  The efficient big man (Bourousis), championship winning veteran (Fotsis), and explosive wing (Hairiston) all look like great parts, but they are just for show.  Deep down, this team doesn’t have a personality.

They went into Pionir Arena and beat Partizan in what was a deciding game, something few thought they could do.  That Partizan was way too young for the moment and was still trying to figure how to play without the all important Pekovic.  I’ve warned you once, so look past the comfort of big names, a marquee win, and what seems to be a changed team; this Milano team is all flash and little else.

“Surprise Me, I Dare You”

9. Anadolu Efes

Tarence Kinsey needs to be healthy, lets get that out of the way.  Go to Kobe’s German doctor, do whatever you have to do, he needs to be on the court if Efes wants to make the playoffs or if you’re a dreamer, the Final Four in Istanbul.  He’s Efes’ most versatile scorer and was playing at a torrid pace for the games he was healthy for.

Besides Kinsey being healthy, two other difference making players, I double dog dare to have big Top 16s are Esteban Batista and Stanko Barac.  The former Caja Laboral frontcourt duo has not been able to play with the same magic they once had back in the Basque Country.  Batista has been hampered by some nagging injuries so far and Barac has looked out of playing shape up until now.  Hopefully a dose of purely Turkish basketball over the last few weeks has started to heel these problems and get these bigs back to dominating shape.  Barac is the giant with the feathery touch and Batista was supposed to be contending for the rebounding crown this year.  Get Kinsey back to 100% and sledgehammer these two out their season long slumps and you know what, I could be surprised.

With Olympiacos and in-town opponent Galatasaray in their way for a playoff berth, two teams really lacking depth in the painted area, Efes would be very much inclined to get their bigs ready for battle as soon as possible.

8. Olympiacos 

There’s been discussions on various occasions at the ELA Headquarters about how far a Vassilis Spanoulis led team can go.  He has the offensive wizardry few posses, but if he’s the best player on your team, how deep of a run can you make?

This cast of Olympiacos characters has made it this far with Spanoulis driving the ship, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.  They’ve really struggled to win any road games, with their only Euroleague win away from Peace and Friendship Stadium being at a already eliminated SLUC Nancy in Week 10.  Bringing in Joey Dorsey helps the plastic bag like thickness of their post depth, but Joey hasn’t exactly been an all-star for Caja Laboral this year.

The good news; Georgios Printezis is finally playing well game to game, as he’s in double figures and over five rebounds for each of the last three outings.  New point guard addition Acie Law looks to be an upgrade over all the other guards playing next to Spanoulis so far and Kyle Hines is back to out-muscling the crap out of people.

The bad news; Lazaros Papadopoulos is out a few more weeks (third on the team in rebounding, second in assists), Marko Keselj hasn’t been the long range artist we expected (6 of 19 from three),  Matt Howard is a non-factor, and the Greek team has to go into Istanbul not once but twice this Top 16, to take on what should be two insanely crazy crowds.

Olympiacos is hoping the good news outweighs the bad.

7. Fenerbahce Ulker

We have three Istanbul teams in contention to play in the Final Four, in their home city.  Shouldn’t that alone be enough motivation to play your butts off?  For this Fenerbahce Ulker team, I hope so.

They win games they shouldn’t win, they lose games they shouldn’t lose and Emir Preldzic still doesn’t look like he’s gained any weight.  Fenerbahce does have 10 competent rotation players and the ability to go big or small at any time.

Should Emir Preldzic run the point on offense full-time?  Will James Gist really break out and go full Gist-Mode this round?  Is Bogan Bogdanovic ready to be the guy who takes the clutch shots?  How much difference will a back from injury Mirsad Turkcan make?

So many questions and only six weeks to find answers.  Whether they win all their games or lose them, Fenerbahce is always surprising me in a variety of ways.

“If I Trust You, You Better Not Lie To Me”

6. Montepaschi Siena

As the end of the Regular Season drew near, Siena was looking for just about anybody to give minutes to.  They were hit by the injury bug more than just about any team, with their three best players, Bo McCalebb, Ksistof Lavrinovic, and Ramantas Kaukenas all missing some time.  McCalebb looks to be the only one fully healthy, or at least healthy enough to play this week.

A fully healthy Siena squad should have Final Four aspirations and even championship thoughts.  But with most of their key players more likely wearing pressed gucci pants to games instead of comfy warmups, making it to the playoffs should be considered an accomplishment.

In the non-injury news department for Siena, Igor Rakocevic and Pietro Aradori have really picked up the scoring load and now provide depth when other players get healthy.  With a fresh helping of tough defense and a heavy dose of Simone Pianigiani, Siena should be back to muscling folks around in no time.  It just remains to be seen, after strolling through a really weak Group D in the Regular Season, if they can still hang with Europe’s elitest of squads.

5. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv

This is close to the best draw possible for Maccabi.  It sucks to draw Barcelona, but you basically have a guaranteed spot at advancing sitting right before you.  Now it’s time to figure out how this team is going to fully function.

Sofo has not been playing at the same form he did last year and the loss of Jordan Farmar still lingers over the team.  Bringing in Demond Mallet will help provide an extra scoring option the backcourt, but it doesn’t make up for everything Farmar brought to the table.  Keith Langford has been the team’s best scorer the last few games and is going to be have a heavy offensive workload as Maccabi moves forward.

This team is good, but are they really good?  Do they have the frontline to match the CSKA’s, Barcelona’s, and Panathinaikos’ of the world?  Their defense is usually shaky and their isn’t really anyone on the roster that you could define as a defensive “stopper”.

The saving grace for this team is that they have veterans David Blu, Theo Papaloukas, Sofo, and Tal Burstein, who have all been through the Final Four wars before.  Now we’ll have to wait and see if this group of savvy veterans, some up and down scoring punches, and the Messiah David Blatt can all be trusted to get Maccabi back to the Championship game.

4. Real Madrid

Real has lost five games total this year in between the Euroleague and ACB, the scores:

@Maccabi (EL) 88-82
@Partizan (EL) 80-79
@Bilbao (ACB) 86-82
@Estudiantes (ACB) 90-85
@Joventut Badalona (ACB) 78-75

So you’re telling me if Real Madrid is on the road, in a tough environment, and they don’t score 85 points, they’re not going to win.  So what happens when they go back to Bilbao in a few weeks, or head to Siena in the Top 16 finale?

This is the best pure offensive team in the Euroleague.  They can score at will and have a variety of different weapons to throw at you.  Nikola Mirotic has been playing at an MVP level since Rudy Fernandez set sail across the Atlantic, and dare I say it, Ante Tomic has looked good in his last three ACB games, going for double figure scoring numbers in all of them.  They have 10 guys that on any given night can lead the team in scoring.

I’m not blowing anyones mind by telling them that Real Madrid can score on you, but they’ve been doing it all year with Tomic only coming out of Pablo Laso’s doghouse if he’s on a leash.  Tomic was Real’s best post player last year and if he can get rolling, then this team may be able to out-offense the rest of Group F.  To be able to get into the holy grail that is the next three teams and a probable Final Four spot, Madrid is going to have to spend a little more time D-ing up.

“Championship or Bust”

3. Panathinaikos

It looks to me like there are three clear championship contenders at this point.  Of those three, Panathinaikos has looked the least elite and doesn’t quite have the same depth 1-12 that Barcelona and CSKA do.

This is not to disparage Panathinaikos at all, they have looked phenomenal at times, especially defensively.  Kostas Kaimakoblou and Steven Smith have tried to do their best Antonis Fotsis imitations, and it can be been very effective on the right occasion.  It just remains to be seen who outside of Dimitris Diamiantidis is going to be clutch when it matters.  The best guard candidates are the legendary Saras who has been averaging a measly 12 minutes a game while he warms up for the games that count later in the season, and Nick Calathes who has continued to gain the absolute trust of Zeljko Obradovic.

Fenerbahce Ulker, UNICS Kazan, and Armani Milano all have the ability to play incredibly inconsistently, and should give Panathinaikos little trouble in gaining the #1 seed in this group.  A slip up or two along the way might happen, but this is the time of year PAO starts to round into Championship form.

2. Regal Barcelona

Put them in a hat, close your eyes, and whatever name you pick you can call the best team in Europe right now.  The two names in that hat, Barcelona and CSKA Moscow.  Both have been in a relative class of their own this year.  After seeing every Barcelona Euroleague home game in person this year, I can tell you they look like they are playing in a different league than a lot of the teams that come through Palau Balagrana.

Their rotation is so deep that by the time the end of the 2nd quarter rolls around, Barcelona usually has the game at hand.  Their average margin of victory is 22 points.  They were given a slight advantage by the lackluster Group D, but they didn’t just beat their opponents, they annihilated them.

With another weak draw for the Top 16 and Maccabi the only real threat to take them down, Barcelona’s biggest problem might be not having enough late game experience in them when close playoff and Final Four games roll around.

The other key to winning a championship, a healthy Juan Carlos Navarro.  So make sure to take all of your prescribed medicine Juan Carlos, you will be needed later on.

1. CSKA Moscow

The thing keeping CSKA at #1 right now and Barcelona at #2, is CSKA’s unblemished record.  They’re firmly on top til someone takes them down.

With AK15 back in the fold, CSKA becomes even more the favorite.  They were 5-0 with AK and 5-0 without him, but their was a definite difference in how the team played.  With AK out, Milos Teodosic posted back to back 10 assist games to cap off the Regular Season, Victor Khryapa found his offensive beast mode, and Nenad Krstic continued to score in the paint at will.

It wouldn’t surprise me if CSKA ran the table this round too against the likes of Olympiacos, Anadolu Efes, and Galatasaray.  The best news about this group for CSKA, with multiple trips to Istanbul this round, they should feel nice and at home when they arrive their for the Final Four in a few months.