Experts getting some international help: Discussing the highs and lows of Final Four clubs
MIES (Basketball Champions League) - Heading to the Final Four, AEK, MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, AS Monaco and UCAM Murcia have reason for optimism, but must also be cautious. Experts explain why.
Along with our usual suspects - Igor Curkovic, the man behind the Live Updates; and Diccon Lloyd-Smeath, who's bringing you the tactical breakdowns in Basketball Champions League Insider - we asked for some international help this time around.
Joining them are Fran Saez of Radio Marca Murcia, Dimitris Chrysanthis of Basketa.gr, Andreas Steimann of Ludwigsburger Kreiszeitung, and Yann Casseville of Basket Le Mag.
Going into this Final Four, I'm feeling good about AEK because...
IC: They are at home. And the club is on the verge of a historic season, with the soccer team winning the league title, and having an opportunity to gather the double crown in the Cup, too. The handball section of the club is in the Final of the EHF Challenge Cup, the basketball team won the Cup, so they may as well just add another trophy to a sublime season for all yellow-and-black fans around the world!
DLS: Momentum and rhythm are huge in any team sport and AEK have both. They will also have belief now, after overcoming so many tough situations. In the Play-offs things can become reduced from the juice, to the concentrate. Everyone has seen each other and figured out ways to take their opponents out of their flow. It becomes about executing the simple actions and finding the right match-up. It also boils down to making shots. AEK have so many players that can cause match-up problems and we already know they can make shots when it really counts.
Dimitris Chrysanthis: They came back with a bang in a top European competition. AEK are a club of great history, they have been constantly competing in high level European and Greek competitions, winning multiple titles, establishing their position as one of the top Greek clubs ever. All of a sudden, this all went to waste seven years ago - AEK were relegated to Second Division. It has been a matter of honor, first and above all, to get back to the top asap. It took them only four years to do it! Playing at this Final Four is a remarkable accomplishment, especially with the 50th anniversary of the European Cup Winners' Cup Final. That was also played in Athens, in 1968. The first European trophy that was ever brought to Greece. And it was by AEK.
That's all good, but there are other teams out there, too. Like UCAM Murcia, who must be feeling good about themselves because...
IC: ...when you take out Iberostar Tenerife and Pinar Karsiyaka in the Play-Offs, you fear no one after that. UCAM Murcia are arguably the best team among the four, speaking in terms of "all for one" mentality, as you never know what might hit you. Brad Oleson? Could be. Clevin Hannah? Sure. Ovie Soko? Most definitely! Augusto Lima, Charlon Kloof, Sadiel Rojas? The list just goes on and on, it's not like you can guard just one superstar, and the team will not function without him.
DLS: Timing. The addition of Augusto Lima has unlocked so much of their trapped potential. When you move away from some of the challenges they had earlier in the season and look at where they are since Lima arrived, it's difficult to identify the weakness. They are much better defensively now and an irresistible force on the offensive glass. They have veterans like Sadiel Rojas and Brad Oleson, that lead by example and make the right plays, when they need to be made. They have have the physicality of Ovie Soko and Augusto Lima. They are also very good at executing the game plan. Ibon Navarro and his coaching staff, have done an incredible job of finding the right schemes to beat the Champs, Iberostar Tenerife and then slow down the three MVP candidates at Pinar Karsiyka. You can see the buy in during timeouts and the players are singing from the same song-sheet. It's all clicking at the right time.
Fran Saez: ...UCAM Murcia are under no pressure at all. The other teams have more pressure because of their budget and history, which are all above UCAM Murcia's, really. And everybody "needs" to win the title. UCAM have shown throughout the competition that they are one of the most physical teams, and are currently in their best shape. They play with a lot of heart. Being in this Final Four is already a big victory for them, they really have nothing to lose...
Yes, but then you have AS Monaco. Are they the favorites to win it all? Why are you feeling like this is Monaco's tournament to win or lose?
IC: Because. Come on. AS Monaco are so loaded that it's ridiculous right now. They are on a six-game winning streak heading into the Final Four, even blowing out SIG Strasbourg away from home in that run! Leading in France, having experience of already being at the F4 last season, well-coached with Zvezdan Mitrovic calling the shots... The best chance they'll get to put Monaco on European basketball map.
DLS: Depth. This team is a beast. In every position, they can change their line-up to match up with anything their opponents throw at them. They have the best Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating in the Final Four and the number one Defensive Rating in the Basketball Champions League. To dominate on both ends of the floor, is pretty much unheard of. Zvezdan Mitrovic also has to be one of the more underrated coaches out there. This season is no fluke. Monaco were excellent last season and with an almost entirely different roster, they have improved again. The loss to Pinar Karsiyaka at the end of the Regular Season was a blip. Monaco's run of form coming in to the Final Four couldn't be much better. If you consider their season domestically and in Europe, it's really not an exaggeration to say they might be the form team in Europe.
Yann Casseville: The team is coming to Athens on a winning run, 6 in a row in Jeep Elite French League, at least 89 points scored in all of those wins. They have a lot of confidence; in their coach, in their game, between each other. Just a season ago, Monaco were also dominant in the Regular Season, but then failed in the French Play-Offs and the Basketball Champions League Final Four, main reason being the injuries during that last run. But this time, Monaco seem to be ready to reach their peak at the best possible moment. Team captain Amara Sy is back from injury, he played the last two games. A natural born leader, with a lot of experience, the team was not the same without him.
Last, but not least - what about MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg? Do their fans have anything to hope for at the summit?
IC: Of course they do. Ludwigsburg have a 99.0 defensive rating this season, and would you believe me if I told you that even that doesn't pain the right picture about this team's effort? You get the feeling that you are attacking five-on-six every possession with the amount of pressure Ludwigsburg put up on you. Coach John Patrick won the FIBA EuroChallenge in 2010, Final Four experience will come in handy.
DLS: Ludwigsburg are so different and so relentless, it's easy to see how they could surprise any of the other Final Four teams. If you are AS Monaco, UCAM Murcia or AEK, you will not have played a team like this. No matter how much scouting and preparation you do, you have to play against this level of physicality to understand how to adjust to it. Because of the way they play, Ludwigsburg can go on big runs, quickly. Once they have a lead, they defend and rebound so well, it's hard to claw them back. This team is also full of extreme competitors. They may not have star players but just look at the way Justin Sears stepped up in the fourth quarter vs medi Bayreuth. When their back is to the wall, somebody steps up. Igor and Andreas both mentioned that John Patrick has been here and done this before - that's huge as well. As a coach he emits an air of confidence in his team. Ludwigsburg will be ready.
Andreas Stiemann: This season MHP Riesen have a very homogeneous team, a team that plays really aggressive full-court defense, that catches the opponent by surprise more often than not. They introduced a new offensive style this season, playing really fast basketball, and hands them the opportunity to grab a lot of offensive boards. Coach John Patrick has a lot of authority, and experience, too. Knows his team, almost always does the right thing for the team, no matter what the situation is.
Don't want to burst your bubble, but if AEK crash and burn, it will be because...
IC: ...of the home court pressure. The line between overwhelming support and unbearable pressure is a thin one, when the stakes are as high as now, it could boil down either way for AEK. Miss a shot or two, have a bad quarter, and you'll learn that there is only one thing more contagious than confidence in a basketball team. And that's lack of confidence.
DLS: Rebounding. They are playing the best offensive rebounding team in the competition. If AEK have a weakness it's rebounding. Finding a way to keep Augusto Lima and Ovie Soko off the offensive glass is huge. If they don't and UCAM Murcia can get Oleson and Hannah making jump shots, it could be a very difficult match up for AEK.
Dimitris Chrysanthis: Inconsistency. They've had huge wins, but also terrible defeats this season. You just don't know what to expect of them in Friday's Semi-Final. Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? The pressure will be huge, too. Can you imagine 18,000 people in the stands demanding a win!? It's not easy to handle such a weight over your shoulders...
Why should UCAM Murcia fans be pessimistic about this Final Four? What could be their wrongdoing in Athens?
IC: Lack of big game experience. They are a joy to watch, so much is going on off the ball in their offense, but at a big event like this, teams will know everything about each other, and be well prepared for Murcia's trickery. That's when you need the know-how to win close games in a hostile environment, something that UCAM as a club have rarely seen.
DLS: They are playing AEK. That means they are playing against 18,000 fans and a team with belief levels, that are off the charts. UCAM Murcia have used an underdog mentality to get to this point. The issue with an underdog mentality, can be the underlying belief that your opponents are better than you on paper but you have have a point to prove. If Murcia come into this game with anything less than 100% confidence and belief, that kind of home atmosphere can expose it quickly. You only need to look at SIG Strasbourg in the first quarter of the Quarter-Finals to understand how big home advantage can be for AEK.
Fran Saez: UCAM's roster is not as deep as other teams'. They don't a similar (big) budget, and, for example, Murcia are third from the bottom when you list down the teams' budgets in Liga Endesa. The team also suffered several problems with injuries, with a couple of foreign players that are not fit to play at the same time. But in all honesty, the team cannot have any excuses. If they aren't at their best level defensively, they may be in trouble.
Up next - AS Monaco. Do they have a weakness? What could get them out of the title hunt?
IC: Second half of Stelmet Enea Zielona Gora in Game One and the second game of Banvit should be the blueprint for teams facing AS Monaco. Easier said than done, but still, AS Monaco are not unbeatable. Not sure if that's a real word...
DLS: The unexptected. DJ Cooper and Aaron Craft are probably the best Point Guard combination in the Basketball Champions League. They have been able to force turnovers and steals against everyone they have played. The problem is that nobody they have played, will have put them under as much pressure as Ludwigsburg will. The Germans also turn the ball over less than anyone in the Basketball Champions League. So much of Monaco's rhythm and tempo comes from forcing turnovers and getting out on the run. They have been able to impose that tempo on everyone they have played this season. What happens if they aren't able to force turnovers against Ludwigsburg? This game will also be very physical. Both teams have the roster to manage foul trouble but Free Throws could be decisive.
Yann Casseville: Their weakness are their opponents! Semi-Finals rival Ludwigsburg are having a really good season in Germany, and I can't wait to see how impactful the crowd of 20,000 AEK fans could be. And in a do-or-die game, you have to keep your mind fresh, not let anything or anyone distract you. If you waste your time blaming the refs for one call, if you pick up a technical foul or something, you could lose your concentration and the control of the game. That's what happened for Monaco, several times, in the Jeep Elite French League.
Finally, MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg's reasons to fail are...
IC: Who takes the ball when it's do or die? Do they have a man to score 30+ points in a big game? Elgin Cook's 26-point performance is their only one in the Top 100 scoring outings of the season. The whole "There's no I in team" approach could lead them to forgetting that there is an "I" in "win." It probably won't, but finding a weak spot with such a dominant team is a tough task for me.
DLS: Monaco's backcourt is better equipped to handle their pressure defense, than any team they have played so far. Paul Lacombe can also play the Point Guard position and at 1.97m (6'6") he could potentially see over the length, that Ludwigsburg like to put at the top of their press. When teams have been able to break Ludwigsburg's pressure, they have consistently generated, good open looks - especially from deep. Monaco are not the best 3-point shooting team but they have guys like Gerald Robinson that can heat up quickly and punish them. In game one of the Quarter-Finals, medi Bayreuth matched Ludwigsburg's physicality and beat them. Assem Marei and his footwork in the post, was a match up issue in both games. Elmedin Kikanovic presents a very similar challenge. The way Ludwigsburg handle a team that can match them physically, will be huge for coach Patrick's team.
Andreas Stiemann: There is always a danger with them, a possibility that some players on the team become a bit "egocentric," as coach Patrick says. If the opponent succeeds in overcoming MHP-Riesen-kind-of-pressure defense, they will get a lot of easy points. And MHP usually struggle with defensive rebounding, that could be crucial at the Final Four.
Who's taking home the MVP of the tournament award?
IC: I'm going with D.J. Cooper (AS Monaco), Kevin Punter (AEK), Ovie Soko (UCAM Murcia) or Thomas Walkup (MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg).
DLS: For AEK to win the tournament, they will need their captain Dusan Sakota to step up. Monaco have so many weapons but Gerald Robinson has to be the man to watch. Ovie Soko is the man for UCAM Murcia and for MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, Thomas Walkup impacts the game in so many ways.
Dimitris Chrysanthis: If AEK win, Manny Harris will most probably be the MVP.
Fran Saez: If UCAM win, there could be a lot of candidates. Ovie Soko and Clevin "Sweet" Hannah are the two obvious choices.
Yann Casseville: If AS Monaco win, maybe the strongest candidate would be Gerald Robinson. On fire for several weeks now, can score no matter the tempo of the game. But let me tell you one thing: For me, the real MVP of this team is on the bench. Coach Zvezdan Mitrovic built a real team spirit, a collective mindset.
Andreas Stiemann: If MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg win, it's Dwayne Evans or Thomas Walkup. Excellent players, very effective, strong, both can decide a game.