By: Rob Scott / @robscott33

Last year’s Regular Season concluded with a supposed Final Four contender dramatically slipping over the edge and out of the competition. It could be happening all over again in Group A as Fenerbahce inch closer towards the cliff’s edge, with Mapooro Cantu sneaking up from behind ready to apply the fatal shove.

Meanwhile, with barely anyone noticing, a supposedly fallen Green giant is one win away from topping the group as their owner storms off in a fit of rage. It seems like a good time to re-evaluate our understanding of this “Group of Death”—it may end up being just that, but the identity of the victim might be a shock to us all.

Win Or Die

Thursday’s game at Ülker Arena is win or go home. The Canaries went into Athens in Week 9 knowing one win out of their final two games would be enough to qualify. They were blown out 69-55 by a Panathinaikos side that is emerging from another bout of chaos at the top and the loss of most of their marquee players to look like a contender—remind anyone of another Athens-area team that did quite well last year?

But let’s back up a second —Fenerbahce knew they had to win one of two games to qualify for the Top 16? This is a team that was supposed to be coasting by now, like Cantu’s opponents Real Madrid, into the next phase only concerned about keeping momentum.

Batiste’s Emotional Return

Fenerbahce’s struggles have been so obvious and well documented it barely seems going into detail again. Bo hasn’t been Bo, Bogdanovic doesn’t do anything other than try to score, consistency from Emir Preldzic is like a cure for the common cold—it seems so plausible that it should exist, and yet finding it has proved beyond the capability of our finest brains.

It was tempting to see the Greens’ extended halftime video tribute to Mike Batiste, returning for the first time as an opponent, as an attempt to disrupt the threat he would pose, but, as per usual this season they needn’t have bothered.

It was a touching, powerful reminder of the legendary status he attained in nine years at OAKA, and beyond the big man’s tears as he took to the mic, what stood out was the action shots on the scoreboard montage from Batiste in his prime: rising imperiously above the rim—usually over an Olympiacos defender—not skulking round the elbow throwing up bad jump shots.

Whatever the plan Pianigiani had for Batiste was, it hasn’t worked, and at the moment it seems that even qualification for the Top 16 will merely be putting off the inevitable.

Cantu Déjà Vu?

All of the drama that should unfold next week on the Asian side of Istanbul has been made possible by Cantu’s never-say-die belligerence in taking down a Real Madrid side 76-70 that, missing Rudy Fernandez, looked like it may have been going through the motions.

A 13-1 opening run for Cantu in a game they won by six proved to be the difference, as Madrid did not look nearly as spritely on the offensive end without their leading scorer and MVP candidate. Analysis by shows that Madrid’s small forward position, dominated by Rudy, is among the league leaders in shots created (unassisted field goals excluding put-backs + assists) and without him, they didn’t look nearly as dynamic.

Manuchar Markoishvili blocking a Jaycee Carroll corner three in the first quarter like it was a potential game winner set the tone for a Cantu side that grabbed 15 offensive rebounds while Madrid secured only 23 defensive.

Marty Leunen’s long three that put Cantu up six points with 90 seconds came on the third attempt of an epic possession. This week basketball stats savant Kirk Goldsberry introduced the concept of the ‘Kobe Assist’—a missed shot that still has value as an opportunity for a putback or extended possession—and there was another play at the beginning of the fourth quarter that showed how much Cantu can use this to their advantage.

Markoishvili posted up and missed the short jumper, Tabu missed a three and Alex Tyus was fouled as he made the putback. Another possession with three shot attempts. Give this team enough of those and it is bound to punish you.

Markoishvili only shot 3-of-12 inside the arc, but his 3-of-5 from behind it to go with a perfect 8-of-8 from the line led Cantu to a victory they needed a lot more than Madrid. Jonathan Tabu has had to pick up the reins left by Jerry Smith’s injury and he gave his team 34 minutes of hassling defense and a shooting line similar to Manuchar—1-of-7 from two-point range but 3-of-5 from deep.

Once again, Trinchieri’s team has done this through its tenacity and attention to detail, overcoming injury and a theoretical talent deficit to punch above their weight and spoil the script. They don’t blow teams away – Fenerbahce at home excluded – but nag their opponents into a creeping realisation that as the screw tightens and the game winds to a close, that it’s still close and they absolutely will not give up.

They actually have a below league average offensive (101.9, 13th) and defensive efficiency (105.2, 15th) but when they’re playing well, incremental factors add up to a dreadfully stubborn whole.

Only Jaycee Carroll could create his own shot for Madrid, something at which Fernandez excels, and Madrid’s only period of sustained offensive success came in their 19-7 run to take the lead in the second quarter after it took them over 5 minutes of the game to register a field goal. Without Rudy’s ability to finish lobs, attack the paint and pass out of a rotating defense, it was left to Felipe Reyes to go hard inside as the only counterpart to Carroll’s dribble penetration and three point shooting. Cusin bullied Begic out of post position and Madrid’s lack of alternative options down low could be one of their only weaknesses going forward one those occasions when their attack from the wings isn’t working. Still, Rudy played on Sunday against Estudiantes and his absence seems precautionary.

Nothing about Cantu’s advanced – or regular – statistics screams ‘Top 16’ but they seem to be able to coalesce the upside of their abilities into individual games, and  here they are again, even without their two best guards in Aradori and Smith, ready to shock Europe again.

Greens Gathering Pace

At the top of the group, if the Greens beat BC Khimki in Moscow (Region) they will slip into the Top 16 with as quiet a contender as their crosstown rivals were this time last season.

While the Reds overcame the loss of star names by hanging onto the most important one and surrounding him with young Greek talent, PAO has gone the other way, keeping Diamantidis but surrounding him with a strange collection of veteran off-cuts and NBA refugees. If they keep going like this, with Lasme and Sofo patrolling the paint and Diamantidis channeling Pistol Pete, Marcus Banks might be flexing his muscles all the way to London.

That’s something nobody, least of all himself, could have predicted.

Rob Scott writes ‘Switching Screens’  for ELA. He also writes for and The Basketball Post. Follow him on Twitter @robscott33.