17 October, 2023
05 May, 2024
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Meet the Final Four contenders: Unicaja

BELGRADE (Serbia) - Don't remember everything that happened en route to the Belgrade Final Four? Don't worry, we got you covered! 

BCL columnists Igor Curkovic and Diccon Lloyd-Smeath have watched every second of the competition since the start of the season and they love nothing more than talking about it, so we asked them to paint a portrait of all Final Four contenders, starting with the first Semi-Finalists, Unicaja.


Igor: We’ve had Unicaja at the top or close to the top of the Power Rankings during this entire season. They are on pace to have back-to-back 40+ win seasons, which usually means winning a major trophy. How did they get to Belgrade?

Diccon: After having in 2022-23 their best campaign since 2017, Unicaja found a way to get even better this season. Continuity is the name of the game for head coach Ibon Navarro as 12 members of last season’s team stayed on and even Augusto Lima, a nominal newcomer, is well-known to both the club and Navarro.

Unicaja started off Season 8 on a three-game win streak, against Falco Szombathely, Le Mans Sarthe Basket and Peristeri. Their 81-64 home rout of Peristeri saw all 12 players log more than 10 minutes but fewer than 11 points. This roster depth and balance have been the story of the season.They went on to top Regular Season Group A and marched into the Round of 16.

Their flawless Round of 16 run was punctuated by a dominant 91-62 victory over SIG Strasbourg at home and an 80-76 road win at Tofas Bursa. Jonathan Barreiro and Tyson Carter had 17 points apiece in the Strasbourg game, whilst Kendrick Perry put up 19 points and dished 3 assists in Türkiye.

That game is Bursa also featured Unicaja’s most memorable moment of the season to-date, as they reversed a 5-point deficit and won the game thanks to Kameron Taylor and Tyson Carter combining for 9 points in the final 100 seconds.

The Andalucian side secured homecourt advantage in the Quarter-Finals as Round of 16 group winners, and matched up with Promitheas Patras. Unicaja made short work of the series, winning the first game 67-54 at home and wrapping it up with a 90-83 road win, their 12th of the season in the BCL, to become the first team to punch their ticket to the Final Four in Belgrade.

Dylan Osetkowski put up an impressive 12-point, 12-rebound double-double in Game 1, while Tyler Kalinoski dropped a season-high 23 points in just 20 minutes of work in Game 2. No other team has more than 10 wins this BCL season, and Unicaja have also had the best or second-best win-loss record in the Spanish Liga Endesa all year.

Igor: Could we say this team has the Ibon Navarro seal? He has been at the helm for over two years and it seems like they have played the same way since day one of his tenure: Team depth, defense that drives the offense, and control throughout 40 minutes, day in, day out.

Diccon: Unicaja play assertive basketball. They dictate the game on defense and then use that to dictate the tempo on offense. Teams know they won’t cross halfcourt without suffering and whilst Unicaja's on-ball pressure and intensity at the point of contact in screening actions never let up, their organization away from the ball is disciplined and machine-like.

Their roster depth means that intensity levels don't drop when personnel changes. Consequently, they have a BCL-leading Net Rating of 16.5 points per 100 possessions and a similarly BCL-best defense that allows just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. Unicaja only allow a miserly 58.6 field goal attempts per game, the second-lowest in the entire BCL and the lowest among Final Four teams.

Their fifth-ranked offense is nothing to be sniffed at either. Unicaja score 115 points per 100 possessions, averaging 14.9 fast-break points and 43.8 points bench points, both by far the best among Final Four teams. The formula is simple: mean defense to create stops, run the ball back at teams and do it relentlessly with all 12 players.

Igor: Last season we said Unicaja could win this whole thing because they had already tasted champagne earlier in the year, winning the Copa del Rey. Could we say the exact opposite this season? Could they win the BCL because they failed to win both the BCL last year, and the Copa del Rey title this season?

Diccon: If the emotional stamina to win both Copa de Rey and BCL at home proved to be too much to ask last season, there is certainly no such respite for their opponents this time around.

The hunger from missing out on the BCL title has been transformed into fuel and the Final Four presents a chance to claim their first silverware this season. Unicaja are in great shape to achieve big things in the Liga Endesa, but they certainly have a point to prove in Belgrade. We can expect them to come in with the mentality of a poked bear.


Igor: This question has barely been answered this whole season, both in the Liga Endesa and the BCL: Is there a way to stop them?

Diccon: A single formula to beat Unicaja doesn’t exist. They shot an anaemic 35.3 percent on the road at Peristeri and gave up 29 free-throws at home against Le Mans, but in both those losses it was more about what they did badly, as opposed to what their opponents did right.

The biggest threat to Unicaja is familiarity, because their path to the title is paved with Spanish opposition. An opponent who's had more chances to play against them has had more chances to solve the puzzle.

Igor: What's your favorite thing about the 2023-24 Unicaja? Could be a play, a player, a playcaller, a playlist, a play on words...

Diccon: Their unpredictability. You never know which player might explode and score 20 points and you never know if they are really and truly beaten, as Tofas learned the hard way.

They also have multiple ways to beat you. If the game needs Kalinoski shooting off screens and Barreiro spacing the floor, they have it. If the game requires Will Thomas scoring in the post or David Kravish and his frontcourt mates dominating the paint, they have that too.