If you cannot stand the heat, stay out of Group E
(Basketball Champions League) – You are not a fan of highly-competitive encounters early on in the season and do not care to experience the atmosphere of some of the most noisy arenas in Europe? Then you should really turn your focus away from Group E, because both these things will be a frequent occurrence in a pool that many consider the ‘group of death’ in the Regular Season.
WE ARE RINGING ABOUT OUR FINAL-FOUR TICKETS
Is it a form of hubris to believe, publicly or privately, that your team is strong enough to reach the Final Four of a 40-team competition that has not even started yet? Perhaps so, but the likes of Besiktas Sompo Japan or AEK would not have put together the rosters they have if their concern was to have a discreet season and not raise expectations.
For Besiktas Sompo Japan, it all started when coach Ufuk Sarica agreed in the summer to return to the club and lead a new ambitious project. At the point guard spot he chose Michael Thompson, whose nickname ‘The Juice’ rather accurately describes a player who was the French Pro A top scorer when playing for Pau-Lacq-Orthez. If more shooting is needed the vastly experienced Michael Roll and Kyle Weems can provide it in high volumes, with the latter adding a generous dose of intangibles that have endeared him to the fans of every European team he has player for. For good measure, Sarica also brought in D.J. Strawberry with whom he won the Turkish league title while at Pinar Karsiyaka. In the frontcourt, while it’s true that neither Serbian FIBA World Cup silver medallist Vladimir Stimac nor Earl Rashad Clark are seven-footers, their ability to fill the paint is beyond any doubt.
Defensive discipline is valued by many coaches around Europe but for Jure Zdovc of AEK it is the primary concern and you can expect the Athens side to suck the life out of opponents left and right in Group E. On the offensive end, the natural talent of Michael Dixon will generate AEK’s scoring while battle-hardened veterans like Croatian national team captain Roko Leni Ukic and Greek sharp-shooter Kostas Vasileiadis are exactly the type of players that can win a game with a decisive play. Randal Falker, who played for Besiktas in 2012, was the latest addition to the roster and forms a solid frontline with Jawad Williams, another veteran who has worked with Zdovc at Gaziantep.
MY HOME IS MY FORTRESS
For all their (perceived, at this stage) strength, AEK and Besiktas are unlikely to turn this tough group into a two-horse race. To begin with, it is very difficult for any team to go to places like Sardegna, Belgrade, Ludwigsburg, Zielona Gora or Charleroi and get a win.
MHP RIESEN Ludwigsburg changed almost their entire roster in the summer but coach John Patrick continues in place and you can be certain this means the German team will continue to hassle for every ball. A new signing that best personifies Ludwigsburg’s blue-collar ethic is center Jack Cooley. He might be undersized and pose no threat outside of the paint but he was a fan favourite last year at Unicaja Malaga, his first team in Europe because he fights under the basket every second of the game as if it were the final minute of the decisive game in a best-of-seven series.
Dinamo Sassari are no longer playing the run-and-gun game of the years under coach Romeo Sacchetti, but have kept important pieces like Brian Sacchetti and Rok Stipcevic while adding a compulsive scorer in the form of Darius Johnson-Odom. Dusko Savanovic has added great experience and craftiness at the four-spot and compliments well the likes of Tautvydas Lydeka and Gabriel Olaseni.
Partizan Belgrade might not be the world-beating team of the early 1990s when Sasha Djordjevic and Predrag Danilovic were leading them to European glory but they are a force to be reckoned with. They have a brilliant coach in Aleksandar Dzikic and, as always, an abundance of talent. 19-year-old shooting guard Vanja Marinkovic who is destined for big things is a great example while former Serbian internationals Novica Velickovic and Stefan Bircevic compose arguably the power forward duo with the softest shooting touch in the entire Basketball Champions League. Point guard William Hatcher, who will go up against his former club Proximus Spirou, has fit right in and assumed big offensive responsibility.
Stelmet Zielona Gora aim to defend their Polish league title first and foremost, but you would be mistaken to think this will prevent them from giving everything they have in their European campaign, especially when they play in front of their fans at their beautiful 5,000-strong Hala CRS. Artur Gronek, who at 31 is the youngest head coach in the Basketball Champions League, has at his disposal vastly experienced players like Lukasz Koszarek, Adam Hrycaniuk, Thomas Kelati and Julian Vaughn while young blood in the shape of point guard James Florence and forward Nemanja Djurisic provides the extra punch to the mix.
Szolnoki Olaj have in their ranks a candidate for top scorer in the Basketball Champions League in shooting guard David Vojvoda. The Hungarian international has elevated his game to the top level in the last year or so and is the undisputed leader of the team. The Hungarian champions have bolstered the backcourt with point guard James Kinney who already knows the domestic league and should acclimatise easily and the same applies to center Ryan Wright who had a great season with Falco KC Szombathely last year.
Proximus Spirou are going through a rocky start in the Belgian league but they have been hit by injuries and are a youthful team with no players above the age of 30, so growing pains are to be expected. Big man Brandon Bowman could join Adam Kemp as focal points on offence close to the rim while Jevohn Sheperd and Darnell Harris are reliable outside shooters. Despite their early woes, do not be surprised if you see Spirou making an extra effort on European nights, especially when they play at a jam-packed Spiroudome, which holds 6,300 fans.