Without a doubt, Group A in the upcoming 2015-2016 Euroleague season seems to be a “Group of Death” of sorts. All six teams have the horses to make a run to and in the Euroleague playoffs, but only four will come out advancing after the initial 10-game round-robin slate, as customary in the Euroleague first round. There will not be any “gimme” games in this group, which makes this group a “must-watch” for Euroleague fans on a nightly basis.
To look at a few teams briefly, Khimki Moscow won the Eurocup last year, and earned promotion to the Euroleague thanks to star point guard and former Euroleague champion (during his time with Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv) Tyrese Rice, who returns to the Khimki squad this season. FC Bayern Munich added some valuable pieces to their roster, including KC Rivers, who brings a championship pedigree after a reserve role with Real Madrid last season, as well as post man Deon Thompson, a former member of the Munich squad two years ago who split time between Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem of Israel and the Liaoning Jiebao Hunters of China in 2014-2015. And lastly, Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade will be a dark horse of sorts, as they have one of the toughest home crowds in Europe, and they added legendary Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who had spent the past couple of seasons as the main post player for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, especially during their championship season in 2013-2014.
But while the three above all have shots for second round and beyond dreams (as well as Strasbourg, who have an established coach in Vincent Collett, though to be frank, I see them as a bit of a longshot in this group, and sense them struggling a little bit more in their promotion than fellow recently promoted Euroleague squad Khimki), the heavy favorites in this group will be defending Euroleague champion Real Madrid and Spain and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul of Turkey, who appeared in the Euroleague Final Four. I have already chronicled Real Madrid a little bit on this blog before, but I really think that with Fenerbahce’s recent success, as well as impressive off-season, the defending champions could not only have serious competition in their group, but perhaps deep in the playoffs as well from Turkey’s premiere basketball club.
Last year was a banner campaign for Fennerbahce, as they went 8-2 in group play and 11-3 in the second round. Their 19-5 overall record in the first two rounds included two wins over Olympiacos (who ended up finishing as runner-up) and EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, and an impressive victory of CSKA Moscow, another Final Four participant not just last season, but the season before as well. In the quarterfinals in a best of five format, Fenerbahce cruised on their home floor against Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv with an 80-72 victory in Game 1 and an 82-67 win in Game 2. On Maccabi’s home floor, Fenerbahce displayed their meddle, winning a tense pressure-filled contest on the road 75-74, much to the disappointment of the Israeli home crowd. As you can see in the highlights below, despite the raucous home crowd, and the tough, desperate play from Maccabi to stave off elimination, Fenerbahce got big time performances and shots from players such as center Jan Vesely, and guards Bogdan Bogdanovic and Andrew Goudelock to propel them to the clinching Game 3 victory.
Though they fell to Real Madrid 96-87 in the Final Four game, as well as CSKA Moscow in the 3rd place game, the Final Four appearance, their first in their history of participating in the Euroleague, was a strong accomplishment for the Turkish basketball club. They showed that not only should they be taken seriously as a team at the domestic level in Turkey, but also throughout European basketball circles in general.
Last season, Fenerbahce was led by spark plug guards Goudelock and Bogdanaovic, who scored 17 and 10.6 ppg, respectively, as well as lanky, versatile forwards such as Vesely and Nemanja Bjelica, who scored 11.2 and 12.1 ppg and grabbed 5.4 and 8.5 rpg, respectively. Opposing teams struggled against Fennerbahce’s athleticism and up-tempo style, as they looked to push the ball on the offensive end in order to score in the fast break, and showed a lot of full and half court pressure defense techniques throughout the season to generate turnovers and easy points. Though they didn’t have the depth of some of the best teams in the Euroleague, they were a well-coached squad under Željko Obradović, and his coaching style and ability to maximize the talent of his roster was a big reason why the club reached the Euroleague Final Four for the first time in history.
This year, Fenerbahce re-loaded in a big way. Though they did lose Goudelock and Bjelica, two key contributors from a year ago, they filled in the gaps with a lot of veteran talent, many who had contributed in the NBA just recently. This off-season, the Turkish club signed Pero Antic (most recently of the Hawks), Ekpe Udoh (most recently of the Clippers and a Top-10 NBA Draft pick) and Luigi Datome (most recently of the Boston Celtics). All those signing are a huge boost to Fenerbahce’s Euroleague hopes, as all those players were such key contributors to NBA teams as recently as last season (especially Antic, who seemed to be a bit of a fan favorite in Atlanta). With the exception of maybe Real Madrid, it’s hard to imagine a fellow Euroleague team that sports the kind of veteran pedigree that Fenerbahce possesses. Add that with another year of the core of Bogdanovic and Vesely (who has looked tremendous in Europe after flaming out in the NBA as a former lottery pick), and it’s easy to see why Real Madrid could have their hands full in Group play.
Real Madrid certainly has the championship experience and a strong core built around their veteran home-country perimeter players such as Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. Furthermore, as defending champs and a former Euroleague player himself, it’s hard to imagine Pablo Laso not having Real Madrid ready for not just their upcoming games against Fenebahce, but the Euroleague in general. That being said, the depth of Fenerbahce, especially in the post will present quite a challenge to Real Madrid. While they do have veteran Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon and the recently added Trey Thompkins, it is hard to see them really matching up with the NBA veteran posts Fenerbahce has in Antic, Udoh and Vesely. And as stated before, nobody has seen a career revitalization in Turkey like Vesely. Seen as soft, passive and ineffective, Vesely has developed a lot of toughness and explosiveness in Fenerbahce that has helped his game immensely. In the most recent FIBA Eurobasket, Vesely proved to be the catalyst for an overachieving Czech Republic team that made it to the quarterfinals, and showcased himself as one of the best players in the field, as he flashed the athleticism and intensity that was hardly seen during his time in the NBA. If you check out high highlights below, it is scary to think what Vesely could be capable of in year 2 with Fenerbahce.
Group A has a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting teams that should be entertaining to watch and follow. But make no mistake about it: the number 1 spot out of the group will be battled between Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. It is still tough to pick against Madrid. Rodriguez and Llull are two of the best point guards in Europe, and have the capability to not just play, but succeed today in the NBA, and the chemistry this Real Madrid squad has simply cannot be matched by any other team in the Euroleague. One cannot overlook the importance of returning a majority of your squad from one year to the next, especially when the previous year resulted in a Euroleague title.
But, as we know not just from the Euroleague, but basketball and sports in general, repeating is tough. And this Group does Real Madrid no favors. Fenerbahce may have been elated with their Final Four appearance last year, but they are looking to go beyond a 4th place finish this year, and they have signed the talent necessary to prove that last year was no fluke. It’ll be interesting to see if their newly acquired horses will help them overcome an experienced Madrid squad, and result in their first Euroleague title in 2015-2016.