Three Thoughts about Fenerbahce from the Final Four

Some thoughts about Fenerbahce and their Euroleague title run…

Euroleague Jam

So, it’s official: Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul are the champions of Europe after their physical 80-64 victory over Greek power Olympiacos Piraeus. They are the first club from Turkey to win the Euroleague title in championship history, and this championship may have officially solidified Turkey as one of the top powers in European basketball circles (honestly, this has been the case for about a decade now, but Turkish basketball always seems to get overlooked by most general basketball fans and media). For Fenerbahce fans, this title a big deal, and I can’t help but feel happy for them, as they not only witness a Turkish club win the title on their home turf in Istanbul (always a good thing to win a championship in front of the home fans), but also exorcised some demons from last year’s debilitating championship game loss to CSKA Moscow in Berlin.

Anyways, as typical after any big moment…

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Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

Some thoughts about the upcoming Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul…

Euroleague Jam

It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.

Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June…

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Turkey’s Time: How the four Turkish clubs look to compete for a Euroleague title

Fenerbahce came up short to CSKA Moscow in last year’s Euroleague Final. Will this be the year Fenerbahce or another Turkish club brings the first Euroleague title to Turkey?

This transfer season has had plenty of stories, mostly centering on the mass exodus of European talent to the NBA through the draft and free agency. Safe to say, almost every club participating in the Euroleague next season has been affected by the NBA, as if they did not lose talent directly, they either lost out on a potential signing to a NBA team or at risk of losing their current players in a year or two, should the player decide to change their tune about making the trip to North America. It is a difficult place for European clubs to be in, as even the biggest clubs in Europe don’t have the kind of money to throw at players in comparison to their American competition, making the ability to keep their best, young, in-their-prime talent more arduous (though not impossible) than ever before.

However, beyond the “exodus” narrative this off-season, the other big story this off-season has been the activity of the four Turkish Euroleague clubs who have dominated the off-season with big moves in terms of boosting their rosters and organizations. In summers that are typically dominated by traditional A license powers such as Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, and Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, the four Turkish clubs have stolen most of the spotlight when it comes to garnering new talent (though Maccabi TA and Panathinaikos have made some key moves themselves). And that is peculiar and a sign of the changes in power going on in the Euroleague, as Turkey doesn’t necessarily have the kind of history in the Euroleague that other European countries have.

In modern Euroleague play, only two teams from Turkey have qualified for the Final Four (Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce Ulker). Last year, Fenerbahce’s overtime loss in the championship game to CSKA Moscow was the best finish a Turkish club has ever had in the Euroleague (Efes finished third in both appearances in 2000 and 2001; Fenerbahce finished fourth in 2015). And, in the modern Euroleague-era, there was a 14-year gap between Turkish club appearances in the Final Four (after Efes made back-to-back Final Fours, no Turkish club made the Final Four until Fenerbahce broke that streak in 2015). While clubs from Greece, Spain, Russia, Italy, Serbia, France and even Lithuania have hoisted the Euroleague trophy at the end of the year, such an honor as evaded Turkish clubs in the 28-year-history of the modern Euroleague.

However, that history of “missing out” seems primed to change as soon as a next year. The four Turkish clubs (Anadolu Efes, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka) looked determined to make their mark through aggressive management this summer, and hope 2016-2017 is the year when Turkey will finally be able to bring home a Euroleague trophy to Istanbul. Who is the most likely to do so? Well, let’s break down each Turkish team and what they did this summer thus far in terms of strengthening their team.

Velimir Perasovic returns to Efes (here in his first tenure there in 2011) to duplicate the Final Four success he had last season with Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Anadolu Efes: New coach, New (Younger) Approach

Prior to the last two seasons, Efes had been one of the strongest Turkish clubs in Europe. After all, until Fenerbahce burst onto the scene under Zeljko Obradovic, Efes has been the only club to make the Euroleague Final Four. Add those Euroleague credentials with the most domestic championships (13) in the history of the Turkish Basketball Super League, and it easy to see why that Efes has been the “face” of Turkish basketball in the European club scene for quite some time.

However, much like the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, a rich history of success doesn’t always guarantee continued success in the current day. That has been the case for Efes, as they have taken a back seat in both domestic and Euroleague play to their local rivals. After winning four straight BSL titles from 2001-2005, Efes has only one BSL title (2009), the same number as local Istanbul rival Galatasaray, and Besiktas and Karsiyaka, smaller clubs who are not even in Istanbul. To make matters worse though, their one title is paltry in comparison to chief rival Fenerbahce, who has won 6 BSL titles since 2005 (and you could count it as seven, as Ulkerspor was a club run by the same sponsor as Fenerbahce currently).

In Euroleague play, Efes has been a consistent participant in Top 16 play, with the occasional appearances in playoff play (they have made the playoffs four times since their last Final Four appearance), but they have not been able to break through to the Final Four like Fenerbahce has the past couple of seasons. To address this recent trend of underperformance in the Euroleague is new coach Velimir Perasovic, who used to coach Efes back in 2010-2011 and comes over recently from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, whom he led to the Final Four and a fourth place finish a season ago (and they were an overtime period away from earning a spot in the championship game). Much like Bartzokas with Lokomotiv Kuban last year, Perasovic is a coach who has the ability to turn around clubs quickly, and maximize the talent on his roster. He helped Ioannis Bourousis go from a bench player averaging about 10 minutes a game with Real Madrid in 2015 to a first-team All-Euroleague player and ACB League MVP who was garnering interest from NBA clubs before signing with Panathinaikos. He coaxed breakout years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, and helped get Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga Summer League looks with the San Antonio Spurs. And he did all these individual things for players while helping Baskonia get to their first Final Four appearance since 2008. It is one thing to help players achieve a bunch of individual accolades (Rick Barnes at Texas was able to do this all the time), but to also create an environment where those individual accolades produce team success is the sign of an excellent and special coach, which Perasovic is and has proven to be in the past.

Unfortunately, Perasovic will be inheriting a different roster than the one Dusan Ivkovic had in 2015-2016. Dario Saric will be heading the 76ers, and Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus will be moving to Turkish rival Galatasaray as well. And unlike in years past, Efes hasn’t really added any free agents as of note, as the biggest signing has been Slovenian Alen Omic from Gran Canaria. Instead, it appears that Efes will build their team with a new approach: relying more on what they currently have under contract, as well as young Turkish players with plenty of upside.

While Efes at this time will return important imports such as Derrick Brown and Thomas Huertel, who both contributed significantly to Efes a season ago, this team has many young Turkish players who are expected to have increased roles from a season ago. The biggest one is Furkan Korkmaz, who most likely will replace Diebler as the main threat on the perimeter for Efes. Korkmaz was a first round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers this year, despite only averaging 8.6 minutes per game in Euroleague play and 12.8 in BSL competition. However, Korkmaz offers significant athletic upside from the wing, and is a fan favorite thanks to his Slam Dunk contest appearance where he dunked in a Darth Vader mask, as evidenced below.

Korkmaz is probably the most high profile Turkish talent, but he isn’t alone on this roster. 20-year-old Ogulcan Baykan will join him on the perimeter, as well as Dogus Balbay, who could receive an increased role if Jayson Granger goes elsewhere through transfer. Also, 21-year-old Cedi Osman showed some promise after averaging 9.5 ppg in Euroleague play and could really break out this season as a more concentrated option in Perasovic’s offense. And lastly, Ahmet Duverioglu is a project big who will get more time and touches in the paint now that Saric and Tyus are gone.

The expectations are high amongst Efes fans and management, but Perasovic has a nice young core of Turkish talent to work with, as well as some veterans (like Brown and Huertel) who could provide good leadership for this squad, especially during the early part of the season. This will be a bit of a tougher task than last season with Baskonia, but Efes has the horses to compete, though they are young and will need to grow up quickly. This focus on “Turkish youth” is a bit of a different approach for Efes from the past couple of seasons, where the outlook was more focused on the short term. However, if it is successful, it could provide long-term benefits for Efes competitively down the road.

Darussafaka has a new image (Under Armour as a sponsor), a new coach (David Blatt, formerly of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Cleveland Cavs) and new players to help them compete at the top with Turkey’s best clubs in BSL and the Euroleague.

Darussafaka: The “New Kid on the Block”

Darussafaka has had a tough hill to climb in their basketball history. They are located in the same city (Istanbul) as basketball powerhouses such as Efes, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, and for the most part have been a third-rate option for basketball fans in that area. Since being founded in 1914, the club has only won two BSL championships (in 1961 and 1962) and had been regulated for a good while until 2013-2014, when Dogus financial group bought the team and immediately invested money in the club to not only bring it back into first-tier Turkish competition, but with the plan to be a competitor on the European stage. In many ways, the Dogus group story with Darussafaka is similar to the story of NBA teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings where a young ownership group comes in and tries to buck the trend of constant losing with strong investment in coaching and talent, as well as marketing to make their club a more “progressive” brand with the local fanbase.

The Dogus group so far has been successful in that plan, avoiding so far the pitfalls that have hurt new ownership groups like the Grizzlies and Kings (inner turmoil, inability to make consistent decisions). They have put a strong emphasis on changing the culture of the club, focusing on Darussafaka being a “modern” and “cool” club for younger Turkish basketball fans, whether it’s in their sleek, new uniforms (they have Under Armour as a sponsor; rare for European clubs), marketing, or in-game atmosphere. However, the biggest waves they have made has been on the court. In 2014-2015, they finished third in the BSL and made the quarterfinals of the BSL playoffs. After moving into a bigger arena in 2015, Darussafaka participated in the Euroleague for the first time in club history, where they made the Round of 16. In BSL play last season, they finished fourth in the regular season, and made the semifinal round of the playoffs (where they were swept by Anadolu Efes).

However, 2016-2017 looks to be the most ambitious year yet for the newly competitive Turkish club. After garnering the lone wild card spot in the newly reformed Euroleague, Darussafaka made headlines by replacing the older, more defensive-oriented Oktay Mahmuti with former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland Cavalier head coach David Blatt. Once they got their new, higher-profile coach in place, ownership spared no expense in the transfer market. They signed big-time playmaker Bradley Wanamaker from Brose Baskets Bamberg, and James Anderson, who played some decent minutes and a full season with the Sacramento Kings a season ago. They also solidified their depth with Turkish shooting guard Birkan Batuk from Anadolu Efes, Latvian combo wing Dairis Bertans from Dominion Bilbao, and French power forward Adrien Moerman from Banvit. And, the club narrowly missed out on Mindaugas Kuzminskas from Unicaja, who ended up signing a contract with the New York Knicks over Darussafaka (though the club did get 800,000 euros as a buyout).

The combo of Wanamaker and Anderson should make Darussafaka a legitimate contender immediately in the new Euroleague format. Wanamaker was Brose Baskets’ best player last year, as he thrived as the primary scoring and playmaking option in head coach Andrea Trinchieri’s offense. Brose Baskets, the reigning BBL champions, and a Top 16 participant will miss his presence heavily this season, as evidenced by the highlights below where his strong performance led Brose Baskets to a crucial win over Khimki in Top 16 play, earning him Top 16 Week 11 Euroleague MVP honors.

The big issue for Darussafaka at this point will be the depth of the squad, as well as how they will fare in the post. Already, there are rumors Semih Erden won’t be returning next year (he looks to return to the NBA), and it is still yet to be determined whether or not Luke Harangody, who had a very productive year for Darussafaka, will return as well as the primary post threat. And the futures of other role players such as Marcus Slaughter, Scottie Wilbekin and Reggie Redding are also to be determined, as they could change their minds about returning to the Turkish club depending on their desire to be back in the United States (i.e. sign a D-League contract instead).  If they do return, expect Blatt to really succeed with this club in year one, since they are under-the-radar talent whose intangibles make up for their lack of athleticism or physical gifts (especially in Harangody’s case). If they do not though, it could be a steeper challenge, and may require a lot of experimenting with temporary options during the preseason and early part of the year leading up to the Euroleague season.

But, despite these issues, Darussafaka has an excellent two-star combo to build around (Anderson and Wanamaker) as well as a head coach who is one of the brightest in the game, and is hungry to prove himself again after a bit of a tumultuous debut in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt should thrive with this roster, and in this situation: he has succeeded in much higher-pressure positions in the past in Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland, and he was still able to make deep playoff runs in those situations. They may not have the depth to be Final Four-bound or compete with Fenerbahce for a BSL title just yet, but don’t count them out, especially considering Blatt’s tendency to maximize the talent available to him on the roster.

Galatasaray hopes their Eurocup title will transition to further success in the Euroleague.

Galatasaray: Eurocup title down; Euroleague next.

After winning the first major European competition in club history (the Eurocup), Galatasaray is looking to make a move in Euroleague play after an aggressive offseason that rivals Darussafaka in terms of new acquisitions. Galatasaray has a passionate fan base, and is no stranger to the Euroleague either, as they made the playoffs in 2014, and have made the Round of 16 as well in 2013 and 2015.

Galatasaray made big noise this summer, acquiring a mixture of former NBA imports, as well as European talent who will bring much needed Euroleague experience next season. The biggest prize may be power forward Austin Daye, a former Detroit Piston and San Antonio Spur who has spent most of his professional career the past couple of seasons with the Austin Spurs, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate. Daye was a former No. 15 pick by the Pistons, and never really lived up to his potential. He never seemed to get the right opportunities in Detroit or San Antonio, and struggled to find a position as well. He wasn’t quite physical or strong enough to play the power forward position, but he wasn’t quite quick enough or had good enough handles to play the small forward position either. That tweener status was a main reason he ended up being mostly D-League roster filler as of late, and eventually moved overseas, where he played for Consultinvest Pesaro in the Serie A last year.

However, it will be interesting to see how head coach Ergin Ataman will utilize the multi-talented Daye with this Galatasaray roster. The strongest aspect of Daye’s game is his shooting, as he is able to easily shoot over players thanks to his 6’10 frame and seven-foot plus wing span. He succeeds not only beyond the arc, but in the mid-range as well, as he is able to hurt teams with a nice little post-up fade away around the block, when he is able to establish position around it (not always a guarantee as stronger posts have pushed him out regularly). Defensively, while not the greatest on-ball defender due to limited agility side-to-side, Daye is an able shot blocker, with good instincts for the ball. Granted, he’s not the kind of defender you want to camp down in the paint, as he gets overpowered easily, but for a stretch four type, he offers the kind of shot blocking that makes him somewhat of an asset defensively, which is not always the case with some stretch four types.

In his first European campaign, Daye averaged 21.2 ppg and 9 rpg in 21 Serie A games with Pesaro, while being named to the Serie A All-Star game. As you can see in his highlights below, Daye showed that he still has some juice left in the tank, and he can be a solid primary scoring option for this Galatasaray team next season, especially from the outside.

However, while Daye may be the primary signing, Galatasaray also added depth with the acquisitions of Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus, who both have big-time Euroleague experience. Diebler was a key player during Karsiyaka’s cinderella run in 2015 in the BSL, and Tyus was a key contributor off the bench during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2014 Euroleague championship. For a club that desperately wants to duplicate the Eurocup success last year as much as possible next season in the Euroleague, acquiring these two is a step in that direction.

The last big signing for Galatasaray was Nenad Krstic who missed nearly all of last season with Efes due to injury. Krstic is the classic high-risk veteran signing, as he probably is in the downward spiral of his career, but he has big-time game experience not just in the Euroleague, but in the NBA as well. At the very least, Krstic will be a valuable veteran who could mentor some of Galatasaray’s younger talent.

There will be pressure on Ataman to make these pieces fit together and work, especially considering the fierce competition at the top in the BSL, and the higher-stakes in the Euroleague with only 16 teams making the field every year instead of 24, like in the past. Vladimir Micov and Blake Schilb, two of the returning starters from last year’s Eurocup squad, helps keep things stable on the perimeter for Galatasaray, especially with the addition of Diebler. And if they are able to keep Stephane Lasme, that will even add more depth in the post with Daye and Krstic, as well as Deon Thompson, whom they just added from Bayern Munich.

There is no question that the talent is there to compete in the Euroleague and BSL. Ataman has been given a nice hand, with management being as aggressive as possible to keep Galatasaray a regular participant in the Euroleague scene. The big question will be how Ataman gets all these new pieces to work with the returning roster. Ataman isn’t coming off the best Turkish National Team campaign, where they looked unimpressive in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and didn’t seem to mesh together as a group in time to qualify for an Olympic berth. (And Ataman was blasted by Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who is playing with OKC Thunder for not maximizing the talent on the roster.) Will Ataman be able to handle the diverse influx of talent with Galatasaray, or will his struggles finding the right combinations on the floor transfer from FIBA to Euroleague play?

The Galatasaray ultras are faithful, but with such high stakes at play this season, they will not be patient if Ataman doesn’t get this Galatasaray club off on the right foot, especially in Euroleague play.

Fenerbahce earned BSL and Turkish Cup titles last year; now all they need is a Euroleague one to complete the “Triple Crown”.

Fenerbahce: The “King stay King”

The sting of coming back from 20-plus down to force overtime, but still lose the Euroleague championship still resonates with this Fenerbahce team and fanbase. In arguably the greatest year in club history, everyone pretty much returns for head coach Zeljko Obradovic and the prospect of a returning roster with such big-game pedigree, as well as a coach who is never satisfied with runner-up finishes, is downright scary for opposing competition not only in Turkey, but in Europe overall.

Fenerbahce’s biggest victory this off-season was the return of post combo Jan Vesely and Ekpe Udoh, who both spurned returns to the NBA to make another Final Four run (and possibly Triple Crown run) with the Blue and Gold. It’s amazing to see how Vesely and Udoh have developed into All-Euroleague players in such a short time, as they struggled in roles as no-offense, limited-defensively players in the NBA who failed to live up to their Top-10 Draft Pick statuses. However, whether it’s the change of scenery in Europe or the tutelage of Obradovic in Istanbul, Vesely and Udoh have become arguably the best post players in Europe, and have been compensated as so to keep them in Turkey. Vesely succeeds as a pick and roll player, as his finishes around the rim off the pick and roll with Bobby Dixon were downright unstoppable at times for opposing Euroleague defenses. As for Udoh, he proved to be a monster cleanup presence, as he regularly finished missed baskets with big time throw downs. On the defensive end, Udoh made his presence known and then some, as he finished with the most blocks in Euroleague history by the end of last season. Expect these two, if healthy to be even better next season, as Obradovic will have a full season to figure out how to better utilize them together on the floor, which is crazy to think of since they were both All-Euroleague players a season ago (Vesely was a first-team player despite missing some time to an achilles injury and Udoh made second team).

The second big victory for Fenerbahce was keeping young wing star Bogdan Bogdanovic, a Euroleague rising star who is coming off his best season yet as a professional. It was widely thought Bogdanovic would make the transition to the Phoenix Suns (the NBA team who owned his rights), especially considering the increase in salary cap which most likely would have resulted in a big payday for the young Serbian. However, Bogdanovic bucked the Suns’ offer and decided to come back at least for another year with Fenerbahce (the Suns were so outraged that they traded his rights to the Sacramento Kings). Nicknamed “the White Mamba” by some Bogdanovic is a big-time competitor who can hurt teams beyond the arc and in the mid-range. His game is very classic, like a Serbian Kobe of sorts who can take over game when he wants. At only 23 years old, he has already had two valuable years of experience with Fenerbahce, and his third season should only be better after the challenges he faced in the Euroleague the past two seasons against Europe’s top competition. If you have any doubts about Bogdanovic, or how happy the Istanbul club is to return the Serbian star, just watch the highlight tape below.

Fenerbahce really has done something rare in the scheme of European club basketball: keep their roster intact. Even beyond the three mentioned above, Fenerbahce also returns forward Nikola Kalinic, Gigi Datome and Pero Antic as well as guards Bobby Dixon and Konstantinos Sloukas. To return the eight best players of a Euroleague runner-up squad is downright unfair, and it makes sense why many experts are claiming that Fenerbahce is the overwhelming favorite to return to the Euroleague championship game (along with CSKA Moscow, who also was able to keep a lot of talent, with Nando de Colo being the prime example).

Staying at the top isn’t easy, as Real Madrid, who pretty much returned everyone as well, didn’t exactly parlay their 2015 Euroleague Championship success into a repeat run in 2016 (though injuries were a big reason for it). The expectations are higher than ever for Fenerbahce, especially considering they are coming off a year where they won the BSL, Turkish Cup and narrowly missed on the Euroleague championship. Anything less than a Triple Crown would be deemed a failure to this organization and fanbase, especially considering the amount of money management spent to keep this roster intact.

But, one has to remember that Obradovic is the head coach of this team, and no coach in Euroleague history has been as successful as him. He is an intense competitor who demands only the highest level of play from his players, and it is obvious that the top talent on this roster, from Vesely to Udoh to Bogdanovic to even Dixon and Datome bought in to Obradovic’s high-pressure defensive as well as offensive system. With another year of familiarity with Obradovic’s system, it should be expected that Fenerbahce will be even more efficient and cohesive on both ends of the floor in 2016-2017.

When it comes to basketball hierarchy in Turkey, Fenerbahce is the King. And this off-season, they have done their best to set themselves up to continue to be King for a least another season. That being said, staying at the top isn’t easy, and certainly Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray have done their necessary steps to make themselves a foil to Fenerbahce’s quest to keep the crown they currently have in Turkey and perhaps Europe. Fenerbahce knows with Bogdanovic most likely going to the NBA soon, and futures of other players such as Vesely and Udoh and even Datome and Antic always in doubt due to the big money of the NBA, their time to stay at the top in their current mold is limited, and they were too close to a Triple Crown last year to settle for anything less in 2017.

So Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray…if you come at the King…you best not miss.

Can Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul Steal the Crown from Real Madrid? A Euroleague Group A Preview

Bogdan Bogdanovic (blue left) and Jan Vesely (blue right) are key to Fenerbahce preventing Sergio Rodriguez (13, white) and Real Madrid from repeating as Euorleague champions.

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.

Fenerbahce Celebrates after sweeping defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Playoffs to earn a spot in the Final Four.

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.