By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
With two weeks left of the Euroleague Regular Season and eight teams in contention for three Top 16 spots, it was time to take a look inside the madness. After a lot of words, schedule breakdowns, and predictions, here are my thoughts on what these teams have done so far this season and how they’ll fare in the next two weeks.
Fenerbahce Ulker (4-4)
Remaining Schedule: at Panathinaikos, vs. Cantu
The Situation: Fenerbahce needs to win one of their last two games to advance or Cantu needs to lose one more game. If Fenerbahce loses both, including a head to head with Cantu, and Cantu wins in Week 9, they are eliminated.
How They Got Here: Just when you thought this Fenerbahce would be different than those inconsistent bunches the last few years, they get right back into their old groove. Being able to put two good games together is one thing, but how about two halfs? After starting the season 3-1, Fenerbahce has lost three of their last four. Between subpar rebounding, mediocre outside shooting, and rotation and roles that are still developing, Fenerbahce has still not found the rhythm you would have expected by now. A win in Athens is asking a lot against a Panathinaikos team that is surging (three straight wins), and is leading the Euroleague in rebounding,while Fenerbahce is dead last.
Then comes Week 10 and a home showdown versus Cantu for the right to advance to the Top 16. Cantu walloped Fenerbahce in the first time around (82-58), but with such a blowout it’s a lot about effort and tough to define how that might affect the Week 10 matchup.
Fenerbahce’s biggest dilemma seems to be what to do with their front-court rotation. Emir Preldzic is a typical small forward, who has been playing a lot of power forward, allowing Fenerbahce to have flexibility with lineups and allowing an extra creator on the floor while suffering in rebounding and post defense. Mike Batiste is back to playing center where he prospers in stretches, unlike his time at the PF spot in earlier weeks. Matching Batiste and Preldzic with David Anderson, Ilkan Karaman, and Oguz Savas has been difficult and frustrating. A Batiste-Anderson combo has provided too slow, limited, and totally unable to cover other even slightly mobile big men. Savas is close to unusable because of his offensive limitations and seriously porous rebounding (averaging 1.3). Anderson’s shot has been less reliable than usual and it’s proving harder and harder to play him at anything but center. But because his game is much more extended, he doesn’t work well with Preldzic, making Karaman really the only pairing he can run truly effectively with. Karaman being the youngest and most inexperienced has had a limited offensive role but has been fairly active on defense.
The ingenuity of Simone Pianigiani to use Preldzic at the PF is intriguing and has worked fairly well but the other big combos have not. Preldzic-Batiste seem to be a good pairing but the other options are entirely a work in progress. In a Euroleague that is becoming more and more mobile having Preldzic at the four spot is smart but the steep drop-off after that is of great cause for concern. Can Fenerbahce win one of their last two to make the Top 16, sure. Will they need to figure out the best possible post rotation in that time frame, no, but the longer this problem lingers, the more inconsistent the team becomes.
Prediction: Call me crazy but this Fenerbahce team had such a deer in the headlights look in the second half of the Real Madrid game that my mind started going off. They really haven’t improved much through eight weeks and they’ll be heading home to Istanbul earlier that usual. Eliminated.
Mapooro Cantu (2-6)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Real Madrid, at Fenerbahce Ulker
The Situation: Cantu needs to win both of their next two games to advance. If Fenerbahce wins one more game, they are eliminated. Point differential does not matter.
How They Got Here: The same Cantu club that was defined by games that went down the wire and winning them last year, is living in a bizzaro world this season where they’ve lost three games by two points. Closing out games has been a real problem and so has been finding reliable scoring options. With starting point guard Jerry Smith out the past four weeks with a broken foot, distribution responsibilities have fallen into the lap of Jonathan Tabu. Tabu has been a solid replacement and an improvement over Smith in some games averaging 10.25 points and 5.75 assists in his last four games as a starter. That isn’t the direct problem. The problem is that Cantu probably more than any possible Top 16 team in the Euroleague relies on their starters the most for production, with little bench help. By having Tabu as a starter you’ve taken away Cantu’s best guard off the bench and created a giant hole there. So now when Tabu has off games, like against Khimki and Union Olimpija recently, you’ve got no one to fill in. There have been rumors of Cantu bringing in another point guard to help Tabu like Sundianta Gaines, Brad Wanamaker, or others, but nothing has emerged yet.
With Real coming to Italy this week, things are sure to get wild. No team is deeper than Real. They continually sub in fresh active bodies all game long. Cantu will need to slow the game down, hope Maarty Luenen can continue his torrid three point shooting pace (51.9%), and will really need to lock down on the defensive boards (Real leads the league in offensive rebounds).
If Cantu can slay the Madrid dragon, then a winner take all match is set-up in Istanbul. Fenerbahce as noted is quite horrible at glass cleaning and Cantu is almost just as bad. They are last and second to last in the Euroleague in total rebounds. So yes, rebounding will be very, very important.
A lot will be riding on Pietro Aradori. The unquestioned offensive leader of Cantu this season was out last week versus Khimki, and we saw how that went. A probably matchup with Romain Sato will challenge Aradori physically but his craftiness and versatile game needs to shine through. With Fenerbahce’s big man rotation problems, Luenen, Marco Cusin, Alex Tyus, and Jeff Brooks should provide all types of matchup pluses with their athleticism and for Luenen and Brooks, their shooting range. This is a mightily tall task for Cantu but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if they win out and advance.
Prediction: I don’t always believe in miracles, but I do believe in Fenerbahce disappointing and underachieving whenever the opportunity to step up arises. The chemistry on Cantu is so solid, they just need a touch more scoring to get over the hump. I’m a believer. Advance.
Four teams have already all qualified for the Top 16 leaving us zero excitement these next two week from Group B. Not only was this group no question the worst collection of teams among groups they were also the least exciting. No really, thanks for everything Group B.
Emporio Armani Milano (3-5)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Zalgiris Kaunas, at Olympiacos
The Situation: Milano needs to win their last two games for guaranteed advancement. They won both games versus Cedevita holding the edge there but lost both matches to Caja. One win and a loss for Caja will also guarantee advancement.
How They Got Here: There isn’t a lot of good to be found here. After winning their first two games of the season Milano has lost five of six. There are a lot of places to poke holes when you lose five of six but Milano never lost by more than 10 points and was in most of these games. They just continue to let teams score in bunches in the second half, allowing 43 points in the second half in their five losses. Their lack of effort and cohesion is apparent.
This is still a bunch of individuals masquerading as a team. They jack up the third most three pointers in the Euroleague (24.3 per game) and an assist in the Milano offensive usually comes off the dribble by one man. There isn’t a lot of entry pass-kick out-swing the ball side to side-shot offense. Instead dribble drives and personal shot creation mostly on the perimeter, are indulged way more than a constant movement offense. This is a formula not too complicated to stop and pretty easy to frustrate late in games. Sure there are few better at breaking you down off the dribble than Keith Langford, Omar Cook, and Malik Hairston, but you really aren’t making the defense work. All the defense has to do is key on the person who’s “turn it is” to break you down that possession and then focus on another guy the next time down.
With tests against versus Zalgiris and at Olympiacos to finish out the season, I’d be beyond frightened as a Milano fan. Zalgiris put up 92 points on Milano the first time around and even with a couple recent losses they are still extremely formidable on both sides of the ball. Olympiacos is arguably the hottest team in the Euroleague with five straights win by an average margin of 13.6. Good Luck.
Prediction: Sure they could advance but that schedule is ridiculous and this team is more unreliable than a Gasper Vidmar free throw. Eliminated.
Caja Laboral (2-6)
Remaining Schedule: at Anadolu Efes, vs. Cedevita Zagreb
The Situation: If Caja wins out and Milano loses one game, they advance. If Caja wins one game and Milano loses two, they advance. Caja lost their first match to Cedevita by seven, meaning if Cedevita wins in Week 9, Caja needs to beat them by more than seven. If Cedevita loses in Week 9, then getting a win is all that matters.
How They Got Here: Can I get a book deal here? Dissecting everything that has gone with Caja’s season could fill a novel but I’ll attempt to summarize it in slightly shorter fashion. Coach Dusko Ivanovic is sent out the door and enter Zan Tabak. In Tabak’s first game Caja gets one of the worst beat-downs the Euroleague has ever seen, 82-45 at the hands of Zalgiris. It was almost too gruesome to watch. But hiccups were to be expected with a new coach mid-season and Caja rebounded to squeak by Milano at home last week. Now with two games to go the Vitoria side that was left for dead two weeks ago, has some hope.
The hope lies in this team’s energy and chemistry, so yes, pretty scary and far, far away from fail proof. They had 44 rebounds against Milano and held the Italian squad to 62 points. To put that in perspective, they only eclipsed 30 rebounds twice this season and haven’t held an opponent under 75 points all season. Caja played with energy and focus, and shook off the softness that has plagued them all year. With the lack of distributors at point guard and frankly also a lack of elite scorers, Caja needs to excel in the dirty work. Offensive rebounding, feisty defense, finishing at the rim, and hustling on offense after creating a turnover are necessities not optional acts. When shots aren’t falling, Caja players need to provide production in other areas. The most enticing sign of this was Macej Lampe, who has a real tough go of it pretty much this whole season, pulled in 14 points and 12 rebounds last week when his shot was off versus Milano.
Caja has two wins this season, they are both against Milano, so these last two games will be no picnic. They need to stay tough and even though their talent is vast, it needs to start living up to it’s billing.
Prediction: Yea, I’ve been sucked back in, it didn’t take much. Plus Week 10 in Vitoria with advancing likely on the line, I’ll take that rowdy fan base to will them to a win. Believe in Brad Oleson. Advance.
Cedevita Zagreb (2-6)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Olympiacos, at Caja Laboral
The Situation: With one win already against Caja, if Cedevita wins their Week 10 matchup, they have the advancing advantage over them. If Milano loses both of their games and Cedevita wins both of theirs, they advance over them. Milano won both games against Cedevita, so a tied record would favor Milano.
How They Got Here: Didn’t expect to see Cedevita here, but here they are. Knockoff an undefeated team in Week 6 (Zalgiris), no problem. Promptly lose the next two games, we’ll do that too. To find a rhyme or reason with the play of this team is tough. They lose their first four, win two in a row, then lose two in a row. They’ve brought back in former coach Aco Petrovic last week to try to guide this team to advancement. A potentially smart move but coaching changes mid-season are a very tough transition.
One thing dug from their wins is that they are a different team when they make threes. While they shoot a fair amount a game (20.3), they don’t make that many (6.5 for a 32.1%). Meaning when they get hot, the shots fly, and they actually stay in games.
Cedevita have a couple of very capable wing scorers in Bracey Wright and Michael Gelabale but not much else. In their most recent game versus Anadolou Efes, Cedevita had six total players score. Six. In the game before versus Milano, they had nine, but only one in double digits. You get the trend, they rely heavily on a handful of players and if those guys get tired, don’t have it going, or are locked down, chaos ensues. With trips to Piraeus and a season ending duel in Vitoria, it’s worth noting that Cedevita has a shot at advancing, just not a very good one.
Prediction: Why Cedevita advancing over Milano and Caja still seems insanely crazy to me is something I need to get over but I just can’t see this team putting two solid games up against these opponents. Sorry. Eliminated.
Partizan Belgrade (2-6)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Barcelona, at Brose Baskets
The Situation: If they win out, they advance. If they beat Brose by more than five points and Rytas loses once they advance. But Rytas holds the point differential advantage, so if they’re tied in record, Rytas advances. Because all these Group D teams are all playing each other to end the Regular Season it’s very possible two teams will tie for the final spot and point differential will be paramount. This also means everything will be very confusing and exciting.
How They Got Here: Partizan finally played well in a game they should win and beat Rytas by one point at home last week. They’ve now won two of three after starting the year with five straight losses. The Serbian club seems to have finally figured out their playing rotation after starting off the year with a bunch of young bodies and not much of a clue. Leo Westermann runs the point until he gets exhausted, Dragan Milosavljevic and Vladimir Lucic are in charge of wing scoring, Drew Gordon and Davis Bertans provide pick-n-pop shooting at the four spot, and Dejan Musli is in charge of controlling the paint. Pieces of Djordje Gagic, Nikola Milutinov,and Nemanja Gordic are sprinkled in.
The key to this next two game stretch will be consistent offense. Game to game Partizan struggles to find scorers to compliment Vladimir Lucic. Lucic has been aggressive as any this year, using a straight line driving method and hurling himself right into contact when he gets close to the rim. He’s fearless, leading the Euroleague in fouls drawn at 48, while averaging a team leading 13.5 points a game.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is back from injury to provide some outside shooting but hasn’t caught fire yet. Game to game different scoring options have sprouted up around Lucic but no one has been too consistent and that seems fair to expect with such a young team. But with advancing on the line more shot making has become a necessity.
If I had to bet on players to step up, it would be in the form of Westermann, Milosavljevic, and Gordon. Milosavljevic was in the same situation last year when Partizan suffered a crushing loss to Milano in Week 10 to get knocked out and with the fight he plays with, I don’t see him going down so easy again. Gordon has been extremely productive as of late both scoring and rebounding and Westermann has had hiccups but as we’ve seen, has the chance to be spectacular with his pass creation ability. A showdown in Bamberg for a shot to extend their Euroleague season will be the ultimate test for this young developing squad.
Prediction: I really want to believe, I do, but Barcelona at home would be a giant upset and then they’re going to Freak City with advancing on the line. Too much, too soon, too young. This was the toughest call to make. Eliminated.
Brose Baskets (2-6)
Remaining Schedule: at Lietuvos Rytas, Partizan Belgrade
The Situation: With wins already over Rytas and Partizan, if Brose wins both games they are in. They hold a five point cushion over Partizan and six point one over Rytas. If they lose one or lose both games things become very messy with point differential and Partizan and Rytas’ other game outcomes.
How They Got Here: Brose undeniably holds their fate in their hands. They have two games left and they are both against their direct competition for advancement. This team has struggled to do one thing all year, create scoring opportunities. A glimmer of hope does exist in last week’s contest against CSKA where they put up 89 points, but still gave up 97 in a loss. The biggest change in the team recently has been Anton Gavel who is averaging 15.8 points over his last five Euroleague games and also added a 30 point outburst this weekend in the German League. Gavel, Boki Nachbar, and Teddy Gipson are really the only three guys on the team that can create their own shot regularly, causing a lot of problems with offensive creativity. Brose’s attack is pretty simple with those three creating, Casey Jacobsen and John Goldsberry moving the ball and shooting from deep, and Maik Zirbes, Phillip Nuemann, and Sharrod Ford patrolling the paint.
Simple isn’t always a negative though and Brose has gotten this far with a very limited offense and no play from big offseason signing AJ Ogilvy. Against much younger and less experienced Rytas and Partizan teams their execution of the game plan and tough defense could very well be enough to stifle the other side. Their isn’t much room for error but one great shooting performance or offensive rebound feast (looking at you Zirbes) and Brose could finally break through to the Euroleague’s second round.
Prediction: This Brose team doesn’t play the prettiest basketball but they have experience and leaders all over. With two games against their two advancing rivals, I’ll take Brose and an insane Freak City crowd in Week 10. Advance.
Lietuvos Rytas (1-7)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Brose, at Besiktas
The Situation: Rytas holds the scoring differential edge over Partizan so if they end up in a tie, Rytas advances. Lost to Brose by six last time. Need to win out and beat Brose by more than six to advance or if Brose loses one game, Rytas only needs to beat Brose straight up. Losing to Brose will ensure elimination. If Partizan wins two games, Rytas is out, they need to tie or pull ahead of Partizan.
How They Got Here: Don’t get your hopes up too much. If Rytas had been able to edge by Partizan last week it’d be a whole different story but they lost by one and close to caved in their advancing chances. Nemanja Nedovic has been electric scoring the ball recently and been a nice pair with Ronnie Seibutis. Both are counted on heavily to score for Rytas. The other bright spot would have to be Leon Radosevic who has gotten in a groove lately with his mid-range jumper. The rest of the offense is spotty at best and without a true point guard on the roster, Rytas is dead last in assists in the Euroleague.
The only real chance Rytas has here, and the light is getting dimmer the more I keep typing, is the offensive explosion possibility of the three players mentioned above. Seibutis and Nedovic combined for 39 points in the earlier showdown with Brose, and it’s entirely possible the sometimes athletically limited Brose guards will have trouble checking the Rytas backcourt again. Brose has struggled offensively badly at times as well, so at home in Vilnius it’ll be an all out war in Week 9. What could be a very sloppy and ugly war. If Rytas can clear that hurdle things become insanely messy in the group and even a win at Besiktas doesn’t guarantee advancing. So even if Rytas wins out, their fate is in the hands of other teams.
Prediction: What’d you think I was going to write. Eliminated.