Before we get to previewing the inaugural FIBA Basketball Champions League Final Four, time for a confession. It’s been a lot better than I expected. The schism in European hoops didn’t affect the top level - no major Euroleague team jumped off the good ship Bertomeu in the summer. But the ongoing dispute between clubs and federations meant that the organisation of the tier below the elite was basically made up as it went along. FIBA got the French and Italian clubs - the latter basically under figurative gunpoint at the last minute - leaving Eurocup to be dominated by Spanish teams, as seen in the final series.
So while FIBA’s new project might not have the lustre of Unicaja Malaga or Valencia in its final stage, and had a convoluted structure as a result of retro-fitting last minute adjustments, it has been compelling and intriguing over the whole season. The Final Four format is unbeatable as a dramatic way to conclude proceedings.
What we are left with, after qualifying rounds, a 14-game Regular Season, a play-in round and two playoff rounds, is AS Monaco, Banvit BK, Umana Reyer Venezia and hosts Iberostar Tenerife, two games away from glory.
That’s the current leaders of the French league and winners of the Leaders Cup, the Turkish Cup winners, second place in Italy and fifth in Spain.
Eurochallenge this ain’t.
So let’s get to know the four teams that will be battling for the first BCL trophy at Tenerife’s Pabellón Insular Santiago Martín. Here are the semi-final matchups:
- AS Monaco vs Banvit BK
- Iberostar Tenerife vs Umana Reyer Venezia
Route to the Final Four
- Regular Season: 1st in Group A @ 12-2
- Last 16: beat AEK +7
- Last 8: beat Dinamo Sassari +14
Domestic: #1 in France Pro A @ 26-3, won Leaders’ Cup (Semaine Des A’s)
Monaco has emerged as a leading team in the French league over the past few years, somehow enticing high quality players to the beautiful Mediterranean tax-haven.
They play an aggressive, athletic brand of basketball, looking to get up and down the floor and use their toughness and quickness on defense to create transition opportunities. Led by the bleach-blonde guard trio of Zack Wright, Jamal Shuler and Dee Bost, they look to attack the rim at every opportunity and create drive and kick opportunities.
Wright uses the same herky-jerky drives and odd angles to finish, all to cover up his lack of a jump shot, but by now he’s so clever with it, it works. Look for him to create or score out of the low post as well.
Bost is the most intriguing of the three for Euroleague level, albeit he didn’t have a fantastic time with Stelmet Zielona Gora but his quick burst to the rim, athleticism and ability to finish will get him attention. Even if a defender knows he wants to attack, it’s tough to stop at this pace.
On the other end of those kick out passes is Sergiy Gladyr, the Ukranian veteran who offers calm leadership on the floor and knockdown shooting. You can’t just chase Gladyr off the three-point line either, he has a nice range of options attacking the closeout. Even if you do fight round screens, he can just shoot over defenders.
The defensive lynchpin and overall Weapon-X glue-guy on the wing is Yakuba Ouattara, also a 38.9% three-point shooter and another powerful slasher.
Upfront, Bangaly Fofana is the kind of defender who turns breakaway dunks into chase down blocks, and Amare Sy isn’t far behind. Fofana and Sy can both hedge out high over screens and recover back quickly, which could be crucial against Banvit and their star probing playmaker Jordan Theodore.
Brandon Davies had one of those ‘asterisk’ early NBA careers during the Sixers’ Deep Tank Era, but nonetheless is the go-to option as a face-up big, and has a serviceable array of post moves. Offensively, Fofana is strictly a rim runner. Nik Caner-Medley is 33 now, and has settled into a lower-key veteran role as a stretchy power forward.
This is a physical, athletic team will run hard, the kind you have to be extremely fit to keep up with over 40 mins. They play confident, even cocky, definitely not averse to trash talk. They wore down AEK and Sassari over both games in their two playoff series, in the end their aggressiveness was relentless.
Head Coach Zvezdan Mitrovic is Montenegrin but cut his teeth in Ukraine, initially coaching BC Khimik from 2002 to 2007. I asked Ukranian hoops expert Oleksandr Proshuta, of Sporthubmedia amongst others, for the lowdown: “At the helm of Khimik, Mitrovic won five consecutive bronze medals - it was a great success because Khimik couldn’t compete with the very loaded BC Kyiv & Azovmash with their huge budgets and Euro-aspirations. Then he moved to Krivbass where he won the UBL in 2009… his teams were always well-coached, played hard, aggressive defensive, very smooth in transition.”
They did face off against semi-final opponents Banvit twice in the Regular Season. Both games went to the home team. Banvit took the first clash 79-65 in Bandirma back in November, with Monaco handling the return 65-63 in January. The latter saw Banvit leading scorer Jordan Theodore held to 5-of-17 shooting, and Monaco will be hoping for a repeat in Tenerife. That could be the key to them doing what their football cousins hope to do in a few weeks: play for the Champions League trophy.
Route to the Final Four
- Regular Season: 2nd in group A @ 11-3
- Last 16: beat AEK +9
- Last 8: beat MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg +1
Domestic: 4th in Turkish BSL @ 18-9, won Turkish Cup
Banvit pulled off one of the biggest heists in recent European hoops history in the Quarter Finals, beating MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg in an insane final minute comeback, capped off by Jordan Theodore’s buzzer beating layup. It was the latest conquest for Theodore and his proud, self-confident quest to propel the team - and of course himself - into the attention of the continent’s basketball elite.
That mission began in February when Theodore led Banvit to Turkish Cup victory, beating Galatasaray and Anadolu Efes along the way, as Theodore picked up the MVP. “We are 7-1 against Euroleague teams, I feel like confident. I feel like I’m the best point guard in Europe, but that’s just me being who I am,” he said afterwards. That kind of bravado is not only refreshing in an era of media trained athletes, but also kind of explains how a team with a relatively short rotation is more than confident of taking the trophy back to Bandirma. Although after a recent loss to one domestic Euroleague opponent, not everyone was as impressed…
The team is undoubtedly led by Theodore and structured around his probing, forensic dismantling of defensive schemes. He leads the team in scoring 15.9 points per game and the competition in assists at 7.5 per. He’s not really a mega-athlete, more a rugged, powerful and intelligent playmaker who gets his teammates easy shots but knows when to take over himself.
There’s a heavy Slovenian influence with coach Sasa Filipovski at the helm, Gasper Vidmar upfront and Edo Muric on the wing. Vidmar is a veteran who still sets rock hard screens for Theodore, gobbles rebounds and makes his coach and fans nervous at the free throw line. Muric is that long, rangy wing who is more at home attacking closeouts than shooting from long range.
Lithuanian Gediminas Orelik is the team’s second leading scorer, a stretch four who has taken almost twice as many three-point shots than from inside the arc. He can fill it up from long range though, and after Theodore is the guy most likely to take double digit shot attempts. The hefty body of Damian Kulig provides another robust inside presence with the ability to pop out to the perimeter.
Furkan Korkmaz arrived midseason from the Anadolu Efes bench, in search of playing time and exposure. He has received both, and could be vital in occupying Monaco’s athletic wing defenders. Still only 19, he’s had a couple of 20 point outbursts including in the Round of 16 playoff second leg against Oldenburg. If the team needs a release valve in the event of Theodore’s offense being snuffed out, it’s likely to come from Korkmaz.
The team’s pre-F4 social media hashtag is #refusetolose and that sums up how they’ve made it this far. Down but not out in the final minute of the Quarter Final, they refused to give in. Whether they can get past Monaco or even come home with the trophy depends on Theodore’s ability to orchestrate and the extent to which they can bog Monaco down in an attritional, low-possession battle.
Umana Reyer Venezia
Route to the Final Four
- Regular Season: 2nd in group B @ 9-5
- Play-In Round: beat Ventspils +2
- Last 16: beat Sidigas Avellino +8
- Last 8: beat Pinar Karsiyaka +5
Domestic: 2nd in Italy Serie A @ 19-9
Umana Reyer Venezia represents Italy in the Champions League Final Four, after only reluctantly entering the competition as a result of all the political tennis over the summer. Then, uniquely amongst the Final Four teams, they had to go through the extra playoff qualifying round, but now they are in Tenerife, they will surely want to make sure all the travails have been worth it.
This is a balanced, veteran-heavy, perimeter oriented team led by a charismatic and stylish coach, Walter De Raffaele, and I’m not only talking about his indoor sunglasses. They trailed for most of the two Quarter Final games versus Pinar Karsiyaka, only forcing their way into the lead through an improvised 3-2 matchup zone that threw their opponents off. In the Round of 16 first leg they held Avellino to 49 points overall, 4 in the fourth quarter. While the defense appears to be inconsistent and perhaps improved in terms of strategy, it’s that kind of bold dice-rolling that could come up big in a single elimination format like this.
I checked in with Marco Pagliariccio, basketball correspondent for the Corriere Adriatico newspaper in Italy, who gave me the inside track on the team and its season so far as they look to push Milano all the way at home:
“Their season is not a surprise in Italy (they have the 3rd budget of all Serie A with about 7 million euros, only behind Milano and Reggio Emilia), they are growing year by year. They have a very deep roster, recently they added also Julyan Stone* and Esteban Batista* (now injured), keep an eye on Stefano Tonut, who is one of the most interesting young Italian players. They play a good basketball, mixing guys like Bramos, Haynes or Ress with players with less international experience as McGee and Ejim. They are a perimeter team so a key for them is the battle in the paint: they added Batista because Hagins was never been fully convincing and Ress and Ortner are a little bit aged.”
(*note: Neither Stone nor Batista are eligible for BCL having signed after the deadline, but their addition shows the ambition of the club to compete with Milano in Serie A).
The lead guard and definitely the man with the rock at crunch time is Marques Haynes, alongside wily Italian/Argentine floor general Ariel Filloy and rugged, hard-working American Tyus McGee. Haynes isn’t a wild shot machine, but defnitely the go-to guy if all else fails. This team primarily generates offense by quick, purposeful ball movement round the arc, not really relying too much on dribble penetration and attacking the rim.
Mike Bramos is still a knockdown shooter and tirelessly runs off screens, and similar to Gladyr for Monaco can shoot over outstretched arms. He’s also a decent defender and can use his length to bother opposing wings, something that could be crucial against Tenerife’s constant ball movement, back screens and perimeter-oriented offense. They struggled with Mateusz Ponitka’s athleticism in the Pinar Karsiyaka series, so a team like Tenerife which uses a more collective approach rather than isolating athletic wings might be easier to manage.
Like a lot of teams at the top of the Champions League, Venezia run out an undersized power forward in Melvin Ejim, who is only 2.01m but has a 2.12m wingspan and plays the four as both a stretchy perimeter big but also as an explosive rim-wrecker. He’s definitely at home battling in the paint and throwing down dunks, and could present a matchup issue for Tenerife’s more finesse-oriented fours. A big-time college scorer, Ejim it has taken a few years for Ejim to round out his game and mature to the level he is now, but he’s probably Venezia’s best player and their most dangerous for the opposition.
Hrvoje Peric is a skilled three/four in the body of a five, and in the likely absence of long, skinny centre Jamelle Hagins through injury, he’ll probably spend more time in the middle, although Austrian veteran Benjamin Ortner will also see the floor there. Peric can bang down low but also handle, attack facing the basket and use his clever craftiness around the rim to make more ungainly defenders look foolish. He looks like a nightclub bouncer but plays like an artisan.
The Ejim / Peric tandem at the 4/5 might be better suited to Tenerife’s quick stretch fours than a more conventional Hagins / Peric duo in any case. Tomas Ress is more of a spot-minute veteran now, but any excuse to post this dunk…. Mamma mia, ragazzi!
As Marco also pointed out to me, the club president, Luigi Brugnaro is also Mayor of Venice, and isn’t averse to issuing executive orders on substitution patterns. Perhaps it might be best if municipal business kept Brugnaro at home for the weekend?
Route to the Final Four
- Regular Season: First in Group D @ 11-3
- Last 16: beat PAOK Thessaloniki +23
- Last 8: beat Asvel Lyon-Villeurbanne +10
Domestic: 5th in Spain ACB @ 19-9
Last, but not least, the hosts and perhaps the favourites to keep the trophy exactly where it will be pre-tip off. Txus Vidorreta has built an almost pure expression of pace and space basketball, with multiple screens set on many possessions, four shooters on the floor at all times, a pair of rim-running big men who can also pass and total commitment to finding the best shot. 74.1% of their field goals are assisted, an incredible feat that’s as pleasing on the eye to hoops aesthetes as it sounds.
Stefanos Triantafyllos has done a great breakdown on how they run offense over at medium.com and I won’t repeat too much of it here. Essentially the team relies on shooting, spacing and excellent ball movement, led by 35-year old Davin White, a skilful floor general who knows his way around this offense like he’s been running it his whole career. When they want to quicken the pace, ‘El Pastelero’ Rodrigo San Miguel comes in to spark things, he’s a better driver than White and probably the biggest wildcard they can throw at teams, but still a distributor first.
Combo forwards Tim Abromaitis and Aaron Doornekamp have the job of knocking down three point shots, created by White, San Miguel and Argentine combo-guard Nicholas Richotti. Abromaitis and Doornekamp aren’t merely shot generators though, both are cerebral decision makers who will move the ball around the horn if closed out.
A pair of reclamation projects man the middle: Georgios Bogris didn’t have a great reputation as a locker room presence or consistent effort-giver in Greece, but all he does for Vidorreta is hustle. A powerful screen-setter, he can catch on the short roll and make the decisive pass, as well as go hard to the rim. Fran Vazquez hasn’t started his retirement on the island either, he seems liberated from the pressure of playing for a bigger club, and has returned to lob-catching form of five years ago.
A personal favourite of ELA, Tariq Kirksay is still going strong at 38, and while he didn’t fill the scoresheet in the playoffs, he and his headband will offer experience and wisdom even at his advanced years.
The quarter final matchup between Tenerife and Asvel was probably the highest overall talent level of the four series, and it is going to take a lot to defeat them at their home arena. Whether Venezia can chase round screens for 40 minutes and closeout to the three point line without giving up easy buckets inside is likely to be crucial. There are no real bad decision makers in this Tenerife team, and their offense is set up so that whoever is open can make shots to beat you. Perhaps the main matchup advantage held by the Italians is the power of Ejim on the glass and Peric down low?
Sharpshooter Marius Grigonis is a longtime favourite of the ELA Podcast’s Austin Green, and he’s another potential game-winner from the three-point arc. Not only that, but he’s probably the team’s swaggiest, most confident shotmaker, and has worked hard on adding that crucial mid-range game to attack the closeout. He’s pushing for inclusion in ELA’s All-Gangsta Starting Five with perennial favourites Marko Guduric and Ioannis Papapetrou, and a spectacular showing here could cement that place.
The islanders got off to a hot start at in the domestic league, leading the ACB classification as late as Week 22. They’ve dropped off the pace slightly since then, going 2-4 in their last six games, but they still present a huge challenge for Venezia. The ACB is several degrees more difficult than any of the other three domestic leagues represented in the Final Four, so a current record of 19-9 is more than impressive.
The atmosphere in La Laguna should be rousing, especially if the hosts make it through to the final. If the Euroleague Playoffs have taught me one thing, it’s not to make predictions, but if we see a final of Tenerife vs Monaco, I wouldn’t be surprised… and whatever happens, the Champions League should get the finale that an intriguing and talent-filled competition deserves.
Who have you got? What do you think of the competition as a whole? Let us know in the comments, or on Twitter…