By: Enrique Castellano / @baskethoopsnet

Editor’s Note: Enrique is stationed year round on the island of Gran Canaria and will be covering this year’s Copa del Rey for ELA.  Enjoy the preview, check back for updates during the weekend, and follow Enrique on Twitter.

Every year, most of the European leagues make a break in February to play a half season championship, a “League Cup”.  Eight of the top teams face of in a “win or go home” tournament. The most important in Europe is still, the ACB’s ‘La Copa del Rey’. This tournament is very special because it is the perfect showcase for teams to scout players in few days. At the Copa del Rey in 2001, it was the breakout tournament because Pau Gasol had a terrific tournament and helped Barcelona beat Real Madrid. After him, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni stood out at home to win in 2002. Rudy Fernandez was MVP without winning the tournament in 2004 and four years later won the tournament alongside Ricky Rubio. Fran Vázquez became a lottery prospect after his winning in 2005… and so on

Pau’s Breakout Tournament in 2001

‘La Copa del Rey’ is not only a basketball tournament. Every team has fans who travel wherever the Copa is and create a special atmosphere. This year, people will miss Laboral Kutxa’s supporters, maybe the loudest and colorful fans in Spain. I have been to a lot of international tournaments and I think the best one is “La Copa”.

This year is one of the most open competitions in Copa’s history. Barcelona and Real Madrid aren’t playing as well as they used to. Unicaja is the favorite team and ACB’s current leader. Bilbao Basket and FIATC Joventut are playing very well and they have won against the top teams in league this year. Gran Canaria is one of the best Eurocup teams and they will play at home. Finally, Valencia Baskett and CAI Zaragoza play against the favorites and they will have nothing to lose against them so they probably will make problems for both Real and Barça.

Team Overviews

F.C. Barcelona

They come to Gran Canaria with some problems. JC Navarro, Brad Oleson and Maciej Lampe has recovered from their injuries recently but they still are not in their best shape. Edwin Jackson may be out due to a flu for the first game. Barça is used to stepping up their game at this tournament and they always show their best face in La Copa. Everybody in Euro Ball wants to see Mario Hezonja in his first tournament with responsibility and minutes on the court. He may be one of the surprises if he shows his potential.

Valencia Basket

After a historical season last year (Eurocup winners and 30-4 regular season), coach Perasovic was sacked this year because of his Euroleague elimination and the team’s problems. Valencia is having a lot of injuries (as always) and players like Romain Sato aren’t playing as well as they did last year. They also failed in looking for a Justin Doellman substitute and the Luke Harangody-Kresimir Loncar frontcourt duo has been playing below expectations. However, coach Carles Durán’s arrival has been good for the team and they are showing a better image than they did earlier in the season.

Matchup winner: F.C. Barcelona. They are a more solid team than Valencia and Barcelona’s front court should be hard to defend for Duran’s team.

Unicaja Málaga

They are having troubles in the Euroleague, but they are the best team in the ACB at the moment. Joan Plaza has made a huge step up without important signings. Maybe their best “signings” are Ryan Toolson and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who were on the team last year and they are playing better than ever. This year they have everything to win a title: a superstar like Jayson Granger, a long rotation and one big post player to play against Real Madrid and Barcelona post players.  His name is Fran Vazquez and his resume includes being a four time Copa winner and the 2010 Copa MVP.

Bilbao Basket

They almost disappear this year due to economical issues and instead they’re having one of the best seasons ever. They have less money, but they are paying on time. They kept key players like Alex Mumbrú, Axel Hervelle and Raúl López and combined them with a few bargains in summer market like Marko Todorovic on loan and signing Latavious Williams and Quino Colom.  Although, their best signing was at the coaching position in Sito Alonso. In my opinion, one of the best “young” coaches in Europe.

Matchup winner: Unicaja. I think it won’t be easy for Málaga, but they are the better team and they know how to win as they showed in the ACB first round.

Real Madrid

After a very bad end of the year, Real Madrid is 13-1 in 2015. They are playing better than ever this season. Rudy Fernández and Sergio Rodríguez are showing why they are the best backourt in Europe. Probably, the game changer in 2015 is Marcus Slaughter. He almost went to Maccabi Tel Aviv on loan but he decided to stay and his defense is a key for Real Madrid’s game. We should follow other secondary players like Jonas Maciulis, Nocioni or even Slaughter in this tournament because they are helping the team to get better in this part of the season.

CAI Zaragoza

They are probably the worst team in the tournament right now. They have lost 3 of the last 4 games in ACB and they also have been eliminated in Eurocup. Zaragoza had a lot of problems to make the team this season (Jose Luis Abós passing away and Giorgi Shermanidi injury) and they are paying for this in mid season. Players like Chris Goulding or JasonRobinson aren’t playing like they were expected to and only Stevan Jelovac is doing a great this season.

Matchup winner: Real Madrid. If Real play like they usually do, they will win easy. They are currently in great moment with the team  and I doubt Zaragoza hasn’t any chance to win.

FIATC Joventut

They are one of the most fun teams to watch in Europe. They try to play fast and they shot three’s like the Houston Rockets. They have combined the expereince of  Sitapha Savane, Sergi Vidal, Tariq Kirksay and Demond Mallet with the youth of Albert Ventura, Alex Suárez and Alex Barrera. They have serious wins this season against Barcelona, Unicaja and Bilbao and they only lost by 2 points against Real Madrid.

Herbalife Gran Canaria

It has been a season with a lot of changes for Gran Canaria. They brought in Aito García Reneses, they signed a lot of new key players and they also have to play Eurocup. They have had a lot of up and downs during the season, showing their best face in Eurocup (15-1) and the worst in ACB (11-10). Aito came to Gran Canaria for this kind of situations and he has to show his skills to make things happen. The big problem for Gran Canaria is Brad Newley’s injury. He sprained his ankle and he hasn’t played for 3 weeks. Sasu Salin signing from Olimpja Ljubljana is the guy who Gran Canaria found to replace the Australian small forward and he showed he was ready to play last weekend.

Matchup winner: Herbalife Gran Canaria. I can’t be objective in this game. I’m from Gran Canaria and I truly believe that the team can win versus Joventut. Gran Canaria hosts the Copa and this is the moment that everybody has been waiting for. I think it will be the most open game in quarterfinal round.

La Copa MVP Prediction: Marcelinho Huertas

He is the key player and the court leader in Barcelona. If he can control Pick and Roll situations, Barcelona’s offensive game will be more fluid and he will be able to show his best skills (passing, mid-range jumper). Barcelona is my pick to win the tournament so Huertas will have to win his potential Finals matchup against Sergio Rodríguez and Sergi Llull.

The Player Everyone Needs to Appreciate More: Eulis Báez

Just watch him and enjoy.