By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

After seven weeks of Euroleague actions there are endless story lines, team trends, and a whole bunch of what the hell is going on moments.  I decided to handpick a few and see the road they might lead us down.

Cantu is Still Alive…Barely

The Euroleague Qualifying Round winner has been gutting it on the Euroleague’s front lines all season in Group A.  Even through some solid performances, the Italian squad still stands at just 2-5 after this week’s narrow defeat to the team they’re directly trying to qualify against, Panathinaikos.  Even with an uphill battle, this Cantu team isn’t ready to pack up their Euroleague bags quite yet.  Here’s the remaning schedules for all of Group A:

Real Madrid (5-2): vs. Fenerbahce, @ Cantu, vs. Union
Fenerbahce Ulker (4-3): @ Real, @ Panathinaikos, vs. Cantu
Panathinaikos (4-3): vs. Union, vs. Fenerbahce, @ Khimki
BC Khimki Moscow Region (4-3): vs. Cantu, @ Union, vs. Panathinaikos
Union Olimpija (2-5): @ Panathinaikos, vs. Khimki, @ Real
Mapooro Cantu (2-5): @ Khimki, vs. Real, @ Fenerbahce

The biggest emergence recently for Cantu, to go along with the solid play of Pietro Aradori, leadership of Maarty Leunen and streaky scoring of Manuchar Markoishvili, is Jonathan Tabu and Alex Tyus.  Tabu has been electric since Jerry Smith broke his foot.  Scoring and creating opportunities for others, he’s had mostly great decision making.  Mostly not being always because you can’t launch a 22-footer with Dimitris Diamantidis in your grill for the last play of the game and call that a quality look.  Tyus has been active as ever around the basket and has refined his little baby hook to the point where offensively teams need to collapse on him more in the post.

The core passing and defensive fundamentals have not left this team and keep them close into games.  Cantu has lost three games by two points, THREE! Of their five losses, three have been decided by a loose ball play or extra possession, while both wins have been convincing victories.  Unlike last year where they would pull off close wins by the skin of their teeth, this year they just don’t have the same last minute fortitude and luck.  They are in the half of the Euroleague teams that have a positive +/- and the only one with a losing record to have that claim.

Now having to knock-off either Panathinaikos or Fenerbahce or Khimki for a Top 16 spot won’t be easy but it’s doable.  Cantu has already knocked off advancing rivals Khimki and Fenerbahce and have turned the re-matches into must-win affairs for advancement chances.

Cantu needs to buckle down harder on perimeter shots late in games and run their offense smoothly all the way until the buzzer sounds.  Top to bottom they may not have the most talent but with an extremely cohesive and dangerous five man unit than can play with anyone (Tabu-Aradori-Markoishvili-Luenen-Tyus),  I wouldn’t doubt the heart and headiness of a Andrea Trincheri coached team until the fire has entirely flamed out.

Maccabi is Solid Overall but Weak at the Top

David Blatt has put together a strong, flexible, and potent Maccabi roster this season.  It just seems he has one big problem, no star.  Last year when the yellow and blues needed a score or really had to lean on someone in late game chaos, they turned to Keith Langford.  Yogev Ohayon, Devin Smith, David Blu, and Richard Hendrix were beautiful compliments to Langford’s dribble drive offense but they were exactly that, compliments.  Now Ricky Hickman and to a lesser extent David Logan (Side note: As good as Logan has been  at times this season, my expectations for him are not “fill clutch late game scorer role” so this will be his only mention)  have stepped into Langford’s scoring role. Eliyahu is providing a mid-range game as opposed to Blu’s deep shooting and Shawn James is playing the Hendrix defensive big role beautifully.

Going with a Ohayon-Hickman-Smith-Eliyahu-James role in crunch time this week, Maccabi crumbled late to Siena.  Eliyahu and James were solid and even spectacular at times, adding little drop off and improvements in some areas to Blu and Hendrix.

The difference seems to be Hickman not quite being able to produce the offense Langford could.  While Langford would ball dominate at times and simplify the offense, he was such a dynamic scorer, it usually didn’t matter.  Hickman has better point guard abilities and even a peskier nose for the ball on defense but doesn’t quite have the same offensive arsenal or confidence that Langford had to take this team on his back whenever necessary.   Not that Langford always did this and it really took him til the Top 16 last year to get rolling, but last season’s Maccabi team did end up a shot away from a trip to Istanbul in the Playoffs versus Panathinaikos.

For this Maccabi team to reach those heights and farther, Hickman needs to turn into a more reliable late game option.  And while I lend Langford as an example, really Hickman might need to exceed that level of play.  After a critical key score late against Siena in Week 2, Hickman has faltered in the last two weeks late versus Unicaja and Siena.  Hickman has had a very good season and this is by no means a criticism, it’s more a compliment. Hickman is the one guy in Maccabi I have the faith in to take his game to the next level in clutch situations, now we need to see it on a regular basis.

Barcelona’s Bench Parasites

Seven weeks, seven wins, Barcelona’s recent tradition of roaring success has continued yet again this year.  As they stand atop the Euroleague mountain, the only team untouched, it’s interesting to see how they got here.  After bringing in some questionable defensive bigs this summer and not bringing in any new offensive toys on the wing, it looked like this team might take a step back.  Not so fast.  They’ve been playing as blistering or better defense than last season’s squad, while really dominating teams in the second half.

While this dominance can be traced back to a lot of things (Juan Carlos Navarro has his stroke back, Ante Tomic has gotten comfortable quickly, Pete Mickael is healthy and active….), I always end up looking at their bench.  With Marcelo Huertas, Navarro, Mickael, Erazem Lorbek, and Tomic starting, Michael ends being the only plus defender for such a dominant defensive team.  Really why Xavi Pascual was ok with the limited free agent signings this summer is because he absolutely loves what his bench can do defensively and he trusts his system. He’s programed his bench to be robots who’s sole intention is to annoy the other team.  The bench gang consists of it’s core members Victor Sada, Joe Ingles, and CJ Wallace, with special shout-outs to occasional performers Nate Jawai and Xavi Rabaseda.

The Sada-Ingles-Wallace trifecta is at the heart of what Pascual wants.  Long, active defenders who expend more energy on defense than few others on the continent.  Sada comes in as the rangy, jumpy point guard tamer, charged with slowing down the other team at their starting point of attack and to get his hands swirling everywhere to disrupt passing lanes.  Ingles is the scorer stopper.  His long as hell frame is used to throw off shooters and close down driving angles for penetrators.  Need a stop, stick Ingles on him.  Lastly is Wallace.  If the Barcelona bench was a late 80’s rock band, Wallace would have been the grungy of the grungiest. Running to spots to force charges, tipping every rebound he can get a finger tip on, and beating his opponent all over the court with his mobility for a four, always making it frustrating for his man to even get the ball.

While the bench gang isn’t always pretty and can be offensively challenged in spots, they provide the perfect base to the Pascual defensive recipe.  Barcelona went after more offensively chiseled bigs this off-season because they knew they were bringing back the backbone of their defense in the bench gang and the always imposing Pete Mickael.  Whenever a team is starting to come back or is shooting it lights out, Pascual just throws in his defensive unit to frustrate, annoy, and ultimately totally wear down his opponent come fourth quarter time (where teams are averaging 14.7 points against Barcelona).  So while other benches might be deeper, more talented offensively, and have more flexibility, Barcelona’s provides exactly what it needs and continues to prove to be the most effective.