Expert Panel: Who will excel in Istanbul and be crowned EuroLeague Women champions?
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - The EuroLeague Women Final Four is now just days away from tip-off and we have gathered an esteemed expert panel to offer some unique insights ahead of the end-of-season tournament, taking place in Istanbul, Turkey.
Slovenian national team ace Nika Baric is a former EuroLeague Women champion and has played at multiple Final Fours. She represented Dynamo Kursk in the competition this season and is competing at the EuroCup Women Final Four in Bourges with CBK Mersin Yenisehir Bld after making the switch.
Giorgios Dikaioulakos is one of the most experienced EuroLeague Women playcallers around and recently took Beretta Famila Schio to within one win of this year's Final Four. He also coached Fenerbahce at the Final Eight in Istanbul in 2012 and has coached several other teams - also at the international level including Greece and Latvia. He is currently the head coach of Slovenia.
FIBA commentator Shona Thorburn is a two-time Olympian with Canada and is also the assistant coach of Basket Landes, who also took part in EuroLeague Women this season.
Who will make the Final and why?
Nika Baric: I feel that Fenerbahce Safipoirt and Perfumerias Avenida are going to make this year's Final. It looks to me that these two teams just have enough of an advantage experience-wise to get it done, We have seen that when they each have to play their best in big games, they go out and deliver and do play their best.
Giorgios Dikaioulakos: It's the first time in almost 10 years that this Final Four will be balanced without the absolute domination of UMMC Ekaterinburg. While you can say that all teams have a 25 percent chance to win the title, I feel that Fenerbahce Safiport have more chances to make it to the Final because we all know what atmosphere their fans will create and how they will push them to the win. Also, their bench depth always plays a huge role and I believe that Fener is stronger there than ZVVZ USK Praha.
The other game looks like a 'deja vu' game from the previous Final Four where I don't believe that anyone can predict the result. Although, if pushed, I would give a small advantage to Perfumerias Avenida because they always seem to have the know-how to win important games.
Perfumerias Avenida have been tipped by all of our panel to ease out Sopron Basket like they did at last year's Final Four
Shona Thorburn: I think Perfumerias Avenida will advance past Sopron Basket. I think this is a team that has proven all season long how to grit out the tough games. They have the experience to go along with young exciting talent. Coach Roberto Iniguez knows exactly what it takes to be successful at this level and I am sure he will have his team ready to compete.
I think Fenerbahce Safiport will beat ZVVZ USK Praha. Before the season started, Fener had put together a roster to compete for this year's title. They suffered a little hiccup a couple of weeks ago in losing the Turkish Cup Final, which I am sure will motivate the players even more. Let’s not forget about home-court advantage also.
Who are the 'X-Factor' players for each club?
Nika Baric: When you are playing at the Final Four, it's very important that all clubs have players from the bench who can change the pace if needed and give their teams some more energy. So with this in mind, I am choosing players that usually come from the bench as my 'X-Factors'.
From Fenerbahce Safiport, I am going with a backup point guard Alperi Onar. From ZVVZ USK Praha, and providing she is healthy again, I am going with the defensive presence of Dragana Stankovic. From Perfumerias Avenida, I would say Maite Cazorla will be very important and the same can be said of Nevena Jovanovic of Sopron Basket.
Giorgios Dikaioulakos: For Fenerbahce Safiport, I would say Satou Sabally, but since she is already a star and the defense will try to adjust on her, then the title of the 'X-Factor' player goes on Olcay Cakir. If the point guard is able to run her team, score from outside, and not make turnovers, then it will become impossible for their opponents to play good team defense in general. More or less the same can be said for ZVVZ USK Praha guard Veronika Vorackova.
Could Veronika Vorackova be the game-changer ZVVZ USK Praha are looking for?
Sopron Basket needs more than ever their 'X-Factor' shooting guard Nevena Jovanovic to make some long-distance shots. She is capable of making some big plays in important games, although it is always difficult in Final Four games. It's vital for the Hungarian team not only in order to stretch the defense and find more space inside the paint for their frontline players, but also to break the choking defense of Perfumerias Avenida. As for Avenida themselves, it's well known that their bench players keep the pace on everything at a high level. So, I wouldn't put one player as an 'X-Factor' but instead, identify their bench in general with the critical question of whether they will be able to do that again in these crucial games.
Sopron Basket guard Nevena Jovanovic has been identified by Nika Baric and Giorgios Dikaioulakos as an 'X-Factor' for her team
Shona Thorburn: For Perfumerias Avenida it's a toss up for me. I think both Maite Cazorla and Leonor Rodriguez are capable of being the 'X-factor'. Both play with a lot of passion and fire and could be game-changers. Either way, I'm sure one of them will need to step up and have a big game for Avenida to be successful. For Sopron Basket, I'd go with Briann January. She flies a little under the radar of this Sopron team, but without her, I don't think we would be seeing them in the Final Four. She is a talented player who never forces anything and always steps up in the big games.
I would say for ZVVZ USK Praha it has to be Teja Oblak. With the emergence of Maria Conde this year and the kind of season we expect from Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones, Oblak has taken a back seat (at least on the offensive end) this season. But let's not forget she is the driving force of this well-oiled offensive team. Meanwhile, for Fenerbahce Safiport, I would say Bria Hartley. On a star-studded team, it's hard to find a player who could be the 'X-factor', but I think that's who Hartley is for this Fener team. Having suffered injuries the last couple of years it's been a long road to return and I'm sure she will want to prove to everyone she is back!
Who will win the EuroLeague Women title and why?
Nika Baric: I think with the roster that they have, Fenerbahce Safiport should win their first title. Especially now that UMMC Ekaterinburg is out of Final Four. Sure, there is now a lot of pressure on the Fenerbahce side, but they have players that can definitely handle that pressure.
Giorgios Dikaioulakos: As I said earlier, we used to say that all teams have a combined 25 percent chance to win the title. For me, Fenerbahce Safirport has a very slight edge this time with 26 percent themselves and the rest of the teams equally sharing the rest of the percentage. The Fenerbahce roster looks amazing and almost like UMMC Ekaterinburg, while the help that they will get from their fans will be tremendous. Plus the fact that they are aware that they will probably never find a chance again like this to win it. An amazing roster, home advantage and no UMMC. But of course, they will still have to give absolutely everything they have to win it.
The whole panel thinks it will be smiles for Fenerbahce Safiport and they'll win their first-ever title, backed by home support
Shona Thorburn: Fenerbahce Safiport because I'm not sure there's a better backcourt in Alina Iagupova and Kayla McBride and let's not forget the recently crowned EuroLeague Women Defensive Player of the Year Elizabeth Williams. Oh wait, and what about Satou Sabally? I could go on, but you get my drift. This is their year to win that first EuroLeague Women title!
Who will be the Final Four MVP?
Nika Baric: If my prediction turns out to be right and Fenerbahce Safiport take their first-ever title, then I would say that it is going to be Kayla McBride who is going to be the Final Four MVP.
Two of our panel have predicted Fenerbahce Safiport guard Kayla McBride to be named as the Final Four MVP
Giorgios Dikaioulakos: I think these games will prove to be Alina Iagupova's moment. She's the one player that can not only be the best defender for Fenerbahce Safiport, but also their best scorer at the same time.
Shona Thorburn: I am going for Kayla McBride although it was a toss-up with her and Alina Iagupova. However, I think McBride will actually be the beneficiary of some highlight-reel passing and creating by Iagupova, and she will hit some huge shots for Fenerbache Safiport and be the one crowned MVP.