Tourneys in Bulgaria, Cyprus to decide four remaining spots in 2020-21 season
MIES (Switzerland) - Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, the saying goes, and this is certainly true for the innovative solution the Basketball Champions League devised for its 2020-21 Qualification Rounds in the face of the challenges the global pandemic poses to European sport.
The 16 teams that are seeking one of the four remaining spots in the 2020-21 Regular Season have been split into four groups and each group will be decided in direct knockout games in a Final 4 format.
In an effort to further enhance health and safety measures, there are only two venues in this atypical Qualification Round, each of which is hosting two Final 4 tournaments.
Nicosia, in Cyprus, plays host to groups A and B, while Botevgrad, in Bulgaria, provides the stage for groups C and D.
These are the contestants in the semi-final battles in each of the four groups:
(The Semi-Finals take place Wednesday, September 23 and the two winners will face off in the Final on Friday, September 25. All games in Nicosia, Cyprus)
SF1: Bakken Bears (DEN) vs. Hapoel Tel Aviv (ISR)
בר טימור מניקוסיה, לקראת המשחק נגד באקן ברס במוקדמות ליגת האלופות pic.twitter.com/R8LJSHA6ar— Hapoel Tel Aviv BC (@HapoelTLVBC) September 21, 2020
Both clubs have prior experience of qualifiers in the BCL, but only Bakken Bears have actually tasted the success of advancing to the Regular Season.
The perennial Danish champions eliminated Estonia's Tartu in the 2016-27 second Qualification Round and earned a spot in Group A of that inaugural BCL season, albeit they finished bottom of the standings on a 1-13 record.
Hapoel tried their luck in 2018-19 but lost to Spirou Charleroi in the first Qualification Round.
Last season, Bakken eliminated Tsmoki Minsk in the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA Europe Cup and were due to face Bahcesehir in the Semi-Finals, but of course the competition was suspended due to the pandemic. Hapoel didn't take part in any European competition in 2019-20.
Keep an eye out for one of Bakken's new additions, veteran guard Justin Dentmon, who led the BCL in scoring during the 2019-20 Regular Season, averaging 20.9 points per game as an EB Pau-Lacq-Orthez player.
SF2: Anwil Wloclawek (POL) vs. Belfius Mons-Hainaut (BEL)
🚨 TEAM UPDATE 🚨 Co z tym Belfiusem❓🌍— Klub Koszykówki Włocławek (@Anwil_official) September 21, 2020
🔹 Krótko o @mons_hainaut 🇧🇪
🔹 Marcin Woźniak o trenerze @VedranBosnic i mocnych stronach rywala
🔹 Sytuacja @ifalmeida i McKenziego Moore'a
🔹 Co z transmisją❓
▶️ https://t.co/jTwZmMdouT#WracamyPoKoronie #plkpl @PLKpl #BitwaOEuropę pic.twitter.com/UHQHiPJ9jq
Anwil Wloclawek are the theoretical favorite in this group as the only team here to have participated in back-to-back editions of the BCL, starting in 2018-19.
Last year, the Polish club stayed in the race for a spot in the Play-Offs until late in the Regular Season but ultimately missed out, finishing on a 5-9 record in their group.
It's worth noting that while Anwil's roster has undergone an overhaul and several top contributors from last year are no longer on the team, they have recruited two players who helped ERA Numburk reach the Quarter-Finals, in Ivan Almeida and Deishuan Booker.
All of this of course means close to nothing for Mons-Hainaut, especially since they are led by former Swedish national team and current Bosnia and Herzegovina head coach Vedran Bosnic, a specialist in pulling off surprises with nominal underdogs.
The Belgian team had taken part in the FIBA Europe Cup every year since 2015 but last season they didn't participate in a European competition.
(The Semi-Finals take place Tuesday, September 22 and the two winners will face off in the Final on Thursday, September 24. All games in Nicosia, Cyprus)
SF1: Keravnos (CYP) vs. Iraklis (GRE)
‼️2020-2021 Season First Official Game— IRAKLIS BC (@IraklisBc) September 21, 2020
👉Iraklis BC / Ηρακλής Θεσσαλονίκης Καλαθοσφαίριση
🆚Keravnos Strovolou Basketball
🏀 Basketball Champions League
🏟 Eleftheria Indoor Hall 🇨🇾
📺 ΕΡΤ3, LIVE
💪 LET'S GET IT💪 pic.twitter.com/1CuLM1XKty
Keravnos are the hosts of the group but since there will be no fans in the stands due to the health measures to combat the pandemic, the Cypriot team's advantage is really limited to the fact they are more familiar with the court and surroundings than the rest of the teams.
Last season, Keravnos fell to Lietkabelis in Qualification Round 2 in what was probably the most unpredictable tie, as both teams won on the road. The Cypriot team transferred to the FIBA Europe Cup, where they finished in third place in their group.
Iraklis are a unique case in that they have not taken part in European competitions for 15 years as the cub struggled with financial problems, but they are anything but newcomers.
In fact, Iraklis is one of the two oldest clubs in Greece (together with Panathinaikos) and was a regular in European competitions up until the early 2000s, reaching the Saporta Cup Semi-Finals on two occasions.
The Thessaloniki club's leading scorer last season, Canadian international Olivier Hanlan, has played in the BCL with two different clubs, Le Mans and Telekom Baskets Bonn.
SF2: Donar Groningen (NED) vs. Dnipro (UKR)
'If at first you don't succeed, try and try again' the saying goes and nobody can accuse Donar Groningen of not putting it to practice, as they have taken part in the BCL qualifiers every single year, but have so far failed to reach the Regular Season each time.
The Dutch club hope of course to change that this time around, as they have trusted the reins to head coach Ivan Rudez and his brother, former Croatian international Damjan Rudez is adding a wealth of high-level experience to the roster.
Dnipro on the other hand are taking part in the BCL Qualifiers for the first time, but last year they passed the corresponding stage of the FIBA Europe Cup with flying colors to qualify for the Regular Season of that competition, where they finished 2-4 in their group.
The Ukrainian club must have seen Groningen's injection of experience with Rudez and decided to double the bet, as they have acquired Viacheslav Kravtsov to pair up with Kyrylo Fesenko at center, in a reunion of vastly experienced Ukrainian big men.
(The Semi-Finals take place Wednesday, September 23 and the two winners will face off in the Final on Friday, September 25. All games in Botevgrad, Bulgaria)
SF1: U-BT Cluj Napoca (ROU) vs. Igokea (BIH)
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Cluj-Napoca are certainly among the most ambitious clubs in the qualifiers, because only basketball organization that aim high can count with somebody like the legendary Dusko Vujosevic as their coaching coordinator.
The Romanian club participated in the FIBA Europe Cup last season and advanced from the Regular Season to the Quarter-Finals, where they fell to Medi Bayreuth.
Two of the pillars of the team that made that deep run, guard Patrick Richard and forward Donatas Tarolis are back with Cluj-Napoca this season.
Igokea competed last season only in the Bosnian first division and the Adriatic ABA League, where they were standing in eighth place when the competition was suspended.
Their roster underwent quite a few changes in the summer, with new arrivals including Bosnian international Edin Atic and Antabia Waller, who played in the BCL with Mornar Bar.
SF2: Fribourg Olympic (SUI) vs. Sporting CP (POR)
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Fribourg tasted the experience of the BCL Regular Season in 2018-19, when they finished on a 3-11 record in their group. The perennial Swiss champions tried to make it back in 2019-20, but fell to Telekom Baskets Bonn in Qualification Round 2.
The Swiss team transferred to the FIBA Europe Cup, where they finished 2-4 in their group and failed to advance to the next round.
By contrast, Sporting's basketball section is trying to come out of the huge shadow of the club's soccer section and even taking part in the BCL Qualification is an important step in that direction.
The Lisbon side were top of the Portuguese league standings at the end of the Regular Season, an important achievement for a club that celebrated the last domestic league title back in the 1980s.
(The Semi-Finals take place Tuesday, September 22 and the two winners will face off in the Final on Thursday, September 24. All games in Botevgrad, Bulgaria)
SF1: Tsmoki-Minsk (BLR) vs. Balkan Botevgrad (BUL)
Tsmoki Minsk have long established themselves as the de facto representative of Belarusian basketball in European competitions, as well as in the VTB United League.
The Belarus champions lost to Karhu in Qualification Round 1 last autumn and transferred to the FIBA Europe Cup, where they reached the Quarter-Finals but were eliminated by Bakken Bears.
Minsk had also attempted to qualify for the BCL in each of its first three seasons, but never made it past the last Qualification Round.
Balkan followed a very similar fate in 2019-20 as they too were eliminated in Qualification Round 1 and transferred to the FIBA Europe Cup.
The Bulgarian team however finished at 1-2 in their group and didn't advance to the next stage. It's worth clarifying that although Balkan are the hosts of the group, they won't have the support of their fans as all games will be played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus prevention measures.
SF2: Neptunas Klaipeda (LTU) vs. London Lions (GBR)
In one of the most intriguing match-ups of the qualifiers, a club that comes from a proud basketball nation is facing off with a club which is not only aiming for its own success is also trying to help popularize the sport in its country.
Neptunas have of course taken part in each of the previous four editions of the BCL and advanced to the Play-Offs the first three years. In 2019-20 however they were involved in the too-tight for comfort race in Group D and just missed out on a place in the Round of 16, finishing on a 6-8 record.
By contrast, the Lions are set to make their European debut in this game, and obviously would like for beginner’s luck to prove a very true phenomenon.
The London club has recruited veteran swingman DeAndre Liggins, the former NBA player who had previous stints in Europe with Spanish side Fuenlabrada and Greek side Kolossos Rhodes.