Experts: Italy poised for another FIBA Europe Cup trophy
MUNICH (Germany) - It has been a year since Umana Reyer Venezia lifted the FIBA Europe Cup trophy after defeating Sidigas Scandone Avellino in the Final a year ago and we could be heading for another all-Italian showdown for the title this season.
Can Dinamo Sassari and Pallacanestro Varese make it happen or will s.Oliver Wurzburg and UNET Holon spoil the Italian feast? As we approach the business end of the Play-Offs, we called in FIBA writers Simas Baranauskas and Igor Curkovic to predict how the rest of the campaign is going to unfold and weigh in on the competition's surprises and disappointments.
While there are no safe picks at this point of the competition, who would you say is the favorite between Sassari and Holon?
Simas Baranauskas: I think it's got to be Sassari. One thing both teams do have in common is the shared experience of nearly blowing their huge leads in the second leg of the Quarter-Finals, but I think it would be fair to say that Dinamo have coped better with their Play-Off challenges, even with a tougher path to the Semi-Finals. The talent on Holon's roster is also undeniable, but they will have to play much harder than against Balkan Botevgrad and Alba Fehervar if they are to succeed.
Igor Curkovic: When Simas went for Sassari, it really made me want to roll with Holon here. It's hard to argue that they've had a fine season, they could've easily been in the Basketball Champions League Play-Offs, and were only just edged out by teams like Tenerife, Venezia, Nanterre and PAOK. But Sassari are in a much better place right now. Holon have lost four of their last five games in all competitions, while Sassari are unbeaten in their seven games. Including a massive statement win against Milano (away from home!) on Sunday.
Who do you see reaching the Final from the other side of the Play-Off bracket - Varese or Wurzburg?
SB: This one's not easy, but I'm going with Varese, though maybe with less confidence than I would have earlier in the season. Both teams have incredible depth at their disposal and it will be interesting to see how it plays out on the court in a Play-Off setting. With no clear positional advantages for either side, this could very well come down to a chess game between Attilio Caja and Denis Wucherer to decide the winner. It wouldn't take much effort to talk me into Wurzburg for this pick, especially after they already knocked out two top-end teams in Avtodor Saratov and Bakken Bears.
IC: I did call Varese to go all the way, right? But it seems that Wurzburg are peaking at the right time here, with an 8-2 record over their last ten games in all competitions. And the only two defeats they had in that span were a one-point thriller at Bakken Bears, and an 11-point loss to the hands of mighty Bayern Munich. Also, the schedule does not look good for Varese, because they are in the middle of the Play-Offs' battle in Italy, and have Milano coming over in the eternal derby of Italian basketball, stuck between the two games against Wurzburg.
Ultimately, who do you think is going to win it all?
SB: Filling in the bracket after the draw, I had Varese beating Dinamo in the second consecutive all-Italian showdown for the FIBA Europe Cup title. I feel compelled to stick with this choice, though I think the race is much closer and more open than it was last year, when Umana Reyer Venezia were the consensus pick to win it all.
IC: I come from a Hajduk Split soccer background, so Sassari is the only Dinamo that I'm allowed to admire. And I do. The beautiful trophy will head to the island.
We've still got a way to go before we crown a new FIBA Europe Cup champion, but we do love coronations. Who's your biggest winner of the season so far?
SB: Hands down, it has to be Z Mobile Prishtina for their ground-breaking campaign. Dardan Berisha and the rest of the crew were already over the moon after reaching the Second Round, but they managed to take it a step further and squeeze into the Play-Offs. Their strong campaign might add even more momentum for the country's growing basketball movement.
IC: I'm saying FIBA Europe Cup is the biggest winner of the season. This has been a fun season to follow, with dramatic turnarounds possible even after a 33-point win in a first leg. Also, Prishtina exploding with success makes me happy because of their head coach Damir Mulaomerovic. I just wish he had the chance to prove his worth back home in Croatia, but that's a whole different topic that I'm not going to open here.
Was there anyone - player or team - who surprised you this season?
SB: Alba Fehervar have been mystifyingly good this year, despite their struggles on the domestic front, where they've hovered around the tenth spot throughout the season. Having finished the FIBA Europe Cup with a solid 11-7 record, they knocked out Telekom Baskets Bonn in the Round of 16 and were minutes away from shocking Holon in the Quarter-Finals. On a related note, who knew 38-year-old Carlos Cabezas had so much left in the tank?
IC: Sek Henry seems to be getting better with each passing season, so we may say that he's "only" 31, turning 32 over the summer. I expected a man of his caliber to be good, but seven 20+ point games, and double digits in 15 of his 16 FIBA Europe Cup games this season make him more than good. Elite.
On the flip side, was there anyone who fell short of your expectations and let you down this season?
SB: There were a few of those, but none more than the legendary Aris Thessaloniki. Their big-name status obviously shouldn't have served as a benchmark for expectations on its own, but failing to make it out of the Regular Season is inexcusable. Even more so, when you consider that they had a relatively easy group, featuring Lukoil Levski, Kataja Basket and Dnipro.
IC: It would be kind of harsh to say Filou Oostende, but I really thought this would be their season. Not just here, but also in the Basketball Champions League, where they looked like a lock to make the Play-Offs, only to drop out on a last-second shot against SIG Strasbourg... Maybe that defeat got them down, too. Based on their play from the opening 13 gamedays of the Basketball Champions League, I had them as this season's Venezia. Maybe next year, right?