Four thoughts about the FIBA Champions League field

FIBA is saying all the right things, but will the Champions League replace the Eurocup in time or just be another failed venture in the club scene for the basketball federation?

I have already done a post about the Eurocup field, and after some time, and the announcement of the teams participating, I am going to do a similar analysis for the FIBA Champions League, FIBA’s newest venture in the club basketball scene. This is going to deviate a little from the Eurocup post, as it will not just be about the teams, but will also bring up some points about the FIBA Champions League in general, as this “civil war” between FIBA and the Euroleague company continues to impact basketball in Europe in a negative way, affecting not only the club basketball scene in Europe, but international basketball as well.

So, let’s take a look at some thoughts about the Champions League field and its outlook for 2016-2017.

 

The field is certainly a step up from the EuroChallenge days.

Strasbourg is the kind of team FIBA wouldn’t have been able to lure to their former competition, the EuroChallenge, in the past.

From 2003-2015, as the Euroleague company and ULEB dominated the top two tiers of European basketball with the Euroleague and Eurocup, FIBA sponsored the EuroChallenge, which effectively became the third-tier competition for European basketball. The competition was a nice mixture, mostly made of smaller clubs from bigger countries as well clubs from countries who didn’t have the basketball pedigree of countries like Spain and Greece, for example. The EuroChallenge certainly didn’t generate the attention or interest of European basketball fans like the Euroleague or Eurocup, but it did have a history of hosting some clubs before they made it to the big time. (The league was actually a preference of clubs from Italy and Russia for example over the Eurocup in its early days; clubs like Unics, Lokomotiv Kuban and Virtus Bologna, who have all played in the Euroleague, had success in the EuroChallenge.)

However, fed up with being a “bronze” candidate in the European club basketball scene, FIBA decided to compete directly with the Eurocup starting last year with the FIBA Europe Cup. However, the league failed to gain traction, and the Champions League decided to re-tool their image and tried to come up with a more hard-line strategy to promote their new competition (mostly involving sanctioning countries and clubs who preferred the Eurocup over the Champions League).

Surprisingly, while the competition may still not be as strong as the Eurocup (mostly due to the Euroleague’s new format, which involves 8 less teams, thus pushing those clubs to the Eurocup), the Champions League should have a solid debut competition-wise. As noted in my earlier post about the Eurocup, French and Turkish clubs who would have been competing in second-tier competition have decided to participate in the Champions League, and this has boosted the competitiveness of the field in comparison to FIBA’s previous club competitions. French clubs like ASVEL and Strasbourg, and Turkish clubs like Besiktas and Pinar Karsiyaka would have been strong competitors in the Eurocup this upcoming season (Strasbourg made the Eurocup finals last season), and the fact that FIBA was able to get them to participate in their inaugural season should boost the profile of their competition in ways the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge couldn’t in the past.

Yet even beyond France and Turkey, two major basketball countries, there is a good mix of competitive clubs from all over Europe. Aris and PAOK from Greece, Iberostar Tenerife from Spain, reigning Europe Cup champion Fraport Skyliners from Germany, Mega Leks from Serbia, Cibona from Croatia, Neptunas from Lithuania, Maccabi Rishon from Israel and Khimik from Ukraine are all quality clubs who have experience in second-tier competition, with some (such as Neptunas) having Euroleague history. Perhaps the Eurocup has a bit of an advantage over the Champions League in terms of quality of competition, but for a debut year, and only two years removed from being primarily a third-tier competition, FIBA did a pretty good job in acquiring clubs that will make the Champions League interesting to follow.

The competition will be more about quantity than quality initially.

Kataja of Finland is one of the 48 clubs that will be competing in the CL, 24 more than the Eurocup, and 32 more than the Euroleague.

With a total of 48 teams participating, the Champions League will follow a format similar to the old Eurocup model: a handful of smaller, lesser-profile clubs will play in a couple of qualifying rounds before a 14 round regular season made up of 32 teams. After the regular season, the best 16 teams will make the playoffs, which will progress until they reach the Final Four, where the winner will be determined over a weekend, similar in fashion to the Euroleague and Eurocup Final Four structure (single elimination).

The nice thing about the Champions League’s model is that it will expose fans to A LOT of teams, and from countries many people don’t think of when it comes to basketball in Europe. Yes, people are familiar with Spain, Greece, Germany, and Italy’s basketball history, but in the qualifying round, there will be clubs from Portugal, Romania, Estonia, Finland, and Belarus, just to name a few. This kind of country exposure is good for the game of basketball, especially for clubs from countries that don’t necessarily get a lot of media or television attention when it comes to basketball. Now, that’s not saying they’re going to have much impact. I can’t imagine Portugal for example, whose basketball teams don’t have the funding of say an Aris in Greece, will be able to compete talent-wise with clubs from major basketball countries beyond the qualifying round, should they make it past that. But to be able to see these clubs compete, even for a little while, should satisfy the basketball junkie who is looking for different clubs and styles beyond what is seen in the Euroleague and Eurocup.

And that is one thing that the Champions League has going for it: quantity. They will have a lot of clubs from a lot of countries and that is a unique quality that the league can hangs its hat on initially. FIBA is definitely trying to promote small European countries a bit more through its international competition, and by giving those small countries and their basketball clubs exposure, that will help make basketball bigger in those countries, and consequently, make Europe stronger as a basketball continent. And plus, for basketball addicts, being able to see as many clubs from as many countries as possible is a plus, just for the niche factor alone, and the qualifying rounds should be something pushed by FIBA when those rounds begin in September. I know basketball addicts like myself would love to see clubs from “lesser-known” countries compete with such high stakes on the line, and FIBA needs to utilize this as much as possible to give it an angle that neither the Euroleague or Eurocup will be able to provide next season under their new formats.

Will the talent follow the clubs in the Champions League?

Neptunas of Lithuania (blue) has been able to attract some talent, but will other clubs be able to in order to make the CL legitimate?

This was also an issue for teams that were demoted from the Euroleague to the Eurocup, but it is a question worth beckoning in this situation as well: will Champions League have enough talent to make the league competitive? Unlike the NBA, clubs see their talent come and go on a frequent basis, and it usually correlates with the competitive status of the club. A club going to the Euroleague is going to garner a lot more talent than one that is being demoted to the Eurocup or Champions League. We saw it this off-season: Maccabi Tel Aviv and Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul were able to get major talent in transfers because of their solid Euroleague status, while teams like Lokomotiv Kuban, Unicaja Malaga and Pinar Karsiyaka lost a lot of talent due to them being regulated to the Eurocup or Champions League.

So far, it is difficult to see if the Champions League will have the kind of talent to keep it on par with the Eurocup. Neptunas has been active in the market by keeping Jerai Grant, and Aris and PAOK have made some small, but roster-strengthening moves, but other than that, it doesn’t seem like many of the current clubs in the Champions League have gotten all that better. Eurocup and ProA runner-up Strasbourg lost coach Vincent Collet and may be rebuilding depending on what a lot of their current players decide this off-season (some are contemplating options ranging from the NBA to other European clubs). Pinar Karsiyaka lost their coach as well to Besiktas as well as a lot of talent. And Mega Leks lost three players to the NBA Draft. When it comes to star players shining next year in the Champions League, there will be a lot of opportunities for players to break out on the big stage through FIBA’s competition, since there will not be a lot of initial big names that FIBA can hang its hat on initially while promoting the league.

And that is the challenge FIBA will face: what kind of talent should the Champions League promote? Should it promote young, up and coming talent? Should it promote veterans who are getting their last shots? Should it keep it straight and say it is as every bit full of talent as the Eurocup? These questions will be interesting to follow, as there has not been a lot of “team” publicity yet in association with the Champions League on its Web site. But, if the Champions League wants to compete with the Eurocup legitimately, it will not only need good clubs, but good, marketable and exciting players as well.

Can the Champions League last? Or is it another failed FIBA idea?

FIBA has tried in the past to be a player in first and second-tier competition and failed. Will the CL be different?

It is a shame that FIBA could not be satisfied with being a third-tier competition with the EuroChallenge and trying to develop that as more of a “small country” competition to grow and strengthen basketball in smaller, less-basketball-focused countries. I think FIBA’s Golden Goose has always been international basketball, even in Europe, and I think the EuroChallenge and being in charge of a third-tier competition, though not as lucrative as a first or second-tier, presented opportunities for growth and creativity that would have down the road strengthened their Goose: the Eurobasket and other European competitions.

But, FIBA wants a bigger portion of the club basketball pie in Europe, and after failing with the FIBA SuproLeague in 2001 (an initial competitor with the Euroleague), FIBA decided to go the next best route: compete with the second-tier competition, the Eurocup. Yes, it’s not as big a piece of the pie as the Euroleague, but it’s a safer and easier route for FIBA to go, and it could also set up the foundation for a coup of the Euroleague down the road as well. If FIBA is in sole control of Europe’s top secondary competition, then it will only be a matter of time before they garner enough teams and talent to directly compete with Euroleague and lure those clubs that solidify the Euroleague as well.

However, as history has shown, this hasn’t always worked out for FIBA. The Europe Cup was a bust last season, and though the EuroChallenge had periods where they tried to directly compete with the Eurocup, it always seemed to fall flat in the end, and FIBA ended up resigning to third-tier status. FIBA is pulling out all the stops to make the Champions League work: they are hitting countries hard with potential sanctions if they are choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League. And it has worked to an extent. There are rumors that by July 11th, the four Italian Eurocup participants will withdraw from the competition out of fear of being sanctioned out of Serie A play domestically. If this does indeed come to fruition, it shows the kind of negotiating power FIBA has. And with this kind of negotiating power and ability to strike down powerful consequences (allegedly), then it will deter people in the future even more from agreeing to participate in the Eurocup, thus making it weaker while consequently strengthening the Champions League.

That being said, it will be interesting to see what kind of sanctions FIBA does hand out. After all, Spain probably has the most leverage in this situation, as they have not only the strongest club scene in Europe, but also one of the strongest national teams globally as well. Will FIBA risk shutting them out, when Spain can bring all kinds of competition to Europe in global play? And can the Champions League truly be a Champions League when the best teams from the best basketball country in Europe refuse to participate?

The Spain situation makes things extremely difficult for the Champions League to succeed, and Russia’s lack of cooperation with multiple clubs preferring the Eurocup over the Champions League doesn’t help either. Russia doesn’t have the national team pedigree, but their clubs have the money, and the kind of money to lure top talent. And as stated before, the Champions League needs talent if they want to legitimize their clubs and their competition in comparison to the Eurocup.

It will be interesting. I do not think that the Champions League will be a 1-year thing like the SuproLeague or Europe Cup before it, as it seems like it has a lot of investment behind it. But it is going to be difficult for FIBA to get over the hump, despite the “sanctioning” power it has. Not having countries like Spain and Russia on board hurts their cause for legitimizing itself, and on a marketing basis, the “Champions League” moniker seems gimmicky, as if it is trying to piggyback on the UEFA Soccer Counterpart and cater to those who aren’t familiar with the European basketball scenery. In all honesty, I think FIBA should have stayed with the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge name, as it would seem less desperate and more unique in the European sporting landscape.

European basketball is at a crossroads, and who comes out on top in this Eurocup-Champions League competition will determine a lot about the future of basketball on the continent. It’s difficult to tell who holds the upper hand at this point. The Eurocup has the clubs and the talent to make it the more legitimate competition for fans, but the Champions League has the FIBA backing which is slowly getting more traction after a court upheld the ruling that FIBA could punish countries for choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League.

It’s on-court product vs. organizational power. That is what the Eurocup-Champions League battle is all about. Let’s hope European basketball isn’t too scorched when this conflict is all said and done, whoever comes out on top.

Advertisements

A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

Four Thoughts from the Eurocup Field Announcement

Galatasaray of Turkey won the Eurocup last season. With a more competitive field, who will win the competition this season?

The transfer season is upon us and all kinds of wild news stories are flooding twitter and the internet ranging from coaching changes to new acquisitions by major clubs to players going to the United States in the hope of making a squad through Summer League. However, the biggest announcement over this past week was the of unveiling of the teams participating in the Euroleague, Eurocup and FIBA Champions League for the 2016-2017 season. While we do not know anything about the draws just yet, the announcement was particularly interesting with the Eurocup, especially considering the ramifications that could possibly be coming for countries of clubs when it comes to FIBA National Team Competition.

So, I wanted to list some thoughts about the Eurocup announcement and four “early” interesting storylines to follow leading up to the start of the season. I will also do another one on the Champions League, as the Champions League and Eurocup will be directly competing with each other for status as Europe’s “second-tier” competition to the Euroleague this season.

The Euroleague’s “Condensed” Format definitely made the Eurocup competition stronger.

Despite a Final Four appearance last year, Loko is back in the Eurocup due to the Euroleague’s condensed format. This will make the competition stronger than its ever been before.

The Euroleague’s decision to have just one round of regular season games rather than two, and 16 teams instead of an initial field of 24 seemed to leave a lot of mid-tier clubs out of the loop. Lokomotiv Kuban, the third-place finisher in the Euroleague a season ago, did not make the cut, and the same was true for other 2015-2016 Euroleague participants such as Unicaja Malaga (who will be making their Eurocup debut this season), FC Bayern Munich, Cedevita Zagreb, Dinamo Sassari, Stelmet Zielona, and Khimki Moscow. In addition, former regular Euroleague participants such as Partizan Belgrade, Alba Berlin, Nizhny Novgorod, Lietuvos Rytas, and Valencia, just to name a few, are also teams that weren’t able to make the Euroleague field, and will be looking for a Eurocup competition championship as well to boost them back into the Euroleague field in 2017-2018 after a multi-year hiatus.

The omission of these clubs from the Euroleague may be a disappointment to those clubs’ fans, as well as Euroleague fans in general who like to see “underdog” stories (such as Loko a year ago), but their addition to the Eurocup field makes the Eurocup competition better than ever. In years past, the Eurocup always had a couple of mid-tier clubs that were simply too good for the “EuroChallenge” (FIBA’s formerly sponsored “third-tier” competition that was replace with the Europe Cup last year and now Champions League), but didn’t offer enough “fight” to Eurocup competitors who had been demoted from the Euroleague. That made the early rounds of the Eurocup not worth watching or following.

However, the addition of these “higher-tier” clubs from the get-go, and an extended round format that is more akin to the Euroleague’s previous format (10 game first round, 14 round Top 16 and then playoffs and Final Four) will make the competition fierce from the beginning. Furthermore, since all 24 clubs will be starting in the Eurocup from the start (rather than 8 joining after demotion following the Euroleague Regular Season), teams will be more prepared and ready for the competition. A lot of times, teams who were demoted ended up playing poorly in the Eurocup, as the demotion was a sign of failure, and they either weren’t “up” for the Eurocup games, or organizations “transferred” players in the Eurocup rounds to recoup some money for the lost season. That won’t be the case this year hopefully, now that there won’t be any “new” teams joining mid-season, and the stakes for an automatic Euroleague berth more fierce than ever with only 3 B-Licenses and 1 wild card available .

It will be interesting to see though how “Eurocup” status will affect some clubs during this “transfer” season.

Guard Kyle Fogg, who signed with Unicaja Malaga, has been one of the few big-name players to sign with a Eurocup team this summer.

While the prestige and depth of competition in the Eurocup certainly improved on paper under the new format, it will be fascinating to see if the “demotion” for many clubs to the Eurocup to start the year will have a negative effect when it comes to acquiring talent this offseason. During this “transfer” season during June, we have not seen or heard as many big signings from teams participating in the Eurocup in comparison to their Euroleague brethren. While Euroleague participants such as Darussafaka Dogus, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and Anadolu Efes have dominated headlines with big-name acquisitions, teams who’ll be participating in the Eurocup have been particularly quiet, mostly relying on small-time upgrades or re-signings that have generated little to no buzz.

One of the most active Eurocup clubs this summer has been Unicaja, who signed former University of Arizona guard Kyle Fogg from German club Eisbaren Bremerhaven and extended a couple of key players from last year’s squad in Nemanja Nedovic and Jamar Smith. Furthermore, Italian club Dinamo Sassari has signed a slew of new players who will hopefully turn around the Sardinian club’s fortunes after a down season that resulted in the firing of long-time coach Romeo Sacchetti during the season. Other than those two clubs though, not many Eurocup clubs have generated attention sans a couple of middling moves here and there. It makes one wonder if being a “Eurocup” team rather than a Euroleague one for many of these clubs has affected their front office’s negotiating power not to mention payroll availability when it comes to garnering talent to build a competitive roster. In the past, a club like Loko would have made a big move by this time in the transfer season, and yet, they, along with some other clubs who participated in the Euroleague a year or two ago, have not acquired anyone of note.

Of course, there still is a lot of time before the Eurocup season tips off, and typically Eurocup participants are more active on the acquisition front when it gets closer to the regular season, when many Euroleague teams have their rosters set, and free agents are just looking for a decent place to play and have less negotiating power. As stated before, clubs like Unicaja, Dinamo, Loko and other “regular” Euroleague clubs tend to be more active than this when it comes to acquiring talent during the “transfer” season. Is it because they’re trying to save money now that they are not in the Euroleague? Or are clubs just being patient, knowing that they don’t have the negotiating leverage they once had when they were in Europe’s top inter-continental competition? Unfortunately, this is a question we will only know the answer to by late August/early September.

The absence of Turkish or French teams in the Eurocup is a bit overblown.

Despite a runner-up finish last year, French club Strasbourg will not be participating in the Eurocup this year.

One of the major stories of the Eurocup field announcement was the absence of any French or Turkish teams in the field of 24. This is the first year in a while where there have been no French teams in either the Euroleague OR Eurocup, which is a bit unusual considering France’s status as a country in Europe as well as the success of their National Team in FIBA competition. As for Turkey, while they do have four teams participating in the Euroleague, they are absent in the Eurocup, including Pinar Karsiyaka, a Euroleague and Eurocup participant last year, who opted to play in FIBA’s Champions League rather than the Eurocup, out of respect to FIBA’s wishes for second-tier clubs to participate in the CL rather than the Eurocup.

It is a bit startling to some to see the absence of such major basketball countries in the Eurocup, but the competition will not miss the two countries much, if at all, once competition begins. In terms of Turkey, as stated before, they already have four clubs playing in the Euroleague, and when you look at the BSL (Turkish Basketball League) beyond those four, the clubs aren’t very strong. Even Karsiyaka, who won the BSL a couple of years ago, have regressed mightily in less than a year, and will be in rebuilding mode after long-time head coach Ufuk Sarica left Karsiyaka for Beskitas after the season ended. So, yes, there are no Turkish clubs in the Eurocup, but with four in the Euroleague already, I don’t think Turkey as a basketball federation minds that they do not have a presence in the “Euroleague-sponsored” second-tier competition. Their strong footprint in the first-tier competition is more than enough to make up for the lack of Eurocup representation.

France on the other hand will have no representation in either the Eurocup or Euroleague, which is a bit more disheartening, since it is unlikely the Champions League will have the kind of publicity or reach with fans that those two other competitions have. However, unlike the French National Team, which is one of the best in Europe, as evidenced by a Gold Medal in the Eurobasket in 2013, their club scene has not performed as well as of late in European competition. The last team to make the Euroleague Final Four from France was Limoges in 1995, and the only team to make the Final Four in the Eurocup’s history was Strasbourg last season, who lost in the final to Turkish club Galatasaray for the Euroleague qualifying spot.

The only possible team that the Eurocup could have benefited from was Strasbourg, who has been the strongest team out of France the past couple of years. Coached lasts season by national team coach Vincent Collet, and with a roster of former Dallas Maverick Rodrique Beaubois as well as young American talent like Kyle Weems, Mardy Collins and Matt Howard, Strasbourg had one of their strongest seasons a year ago both in the Eurocup (finishing second overall), Euroleague (they won five games, and just missed out on making the Top 16) and domestically (they won 25 games in the LNB). However, after blowing a 2-0 lead in the finals to ASVEL, a team that finished in 5th place in the regular season, Collet was let go and who knows not only who will replace Collet, but how many of the players will stay on board with Strasbourg in 2016-2017.

And thus, with France’s strongest team looking to be in regression, and former Euroleague and Eurocup participant CSP Limoges coming off a pretty sub-par season (they only won 3 games in the Euroleague and went 18-16 during LNB play), the Eurocup may not have benefited competitively from France’s participation. And one can’t blame France for passing on the Eurocup either: France’s biggest strength in international basketball is their national team, and with possible sanctions coming for national teams whose clubs are participating in the Eurocup, choosing FIBA’s Champions League was the safest route to go.

How will sanctions affect the Eurocup beyond next year?

With multiple clubs participating in the Eurocup, will Spain, the reigning champions, along with other countries, be barred from the Eurobasket in 2017?

The Eurocup looks to be the strongest it’s ever been in its short history, with many Euroleague-quality teams flooding the field. It is clearly superior to FIBA’s Champions League, though the Champions League is a lot better than I initially thought it would be (it certainly is better than the FIBA Europe Cup field this past year). But the Eurocup participation could come at tremendous cost: already, many countries have dished out sanctions in their domestic league (Russia being the biggest one), and it seems strong that FIBA is trying to dish out similar punishment to the national teams as well who have clubs participating in the Eurocup.

Now, as they are still in court fighting this, it probably won’t have any effect on the Olympics this summer. However, the biggest question will be how FIBA will sanction teams by the Eurobasket in 2017? With Hapoel Jerusalem participating in the Eurocup, not only has the club gotten sanctioned domestically (they will be ineligible for the Israeli Cup, though it might not affect their status in the Winner League), but there is a possibility that they may not be able to participate or host games during the Eurobasket 2017 (Israel is one of the four hosts along with Romania, Finland and Turkey, who not clubs in the Eurocup). Considering Israel is coming off a strong showing in the Eurobasket 2015, this would be back-breaking for their national team after years of progress to be as competitive in FIBA play as they are in the club scene (mostly due to Maccabi Tel Aviv).

But then again, with so many major countries having clubs who are participating in the Eurocup such as Spain, Germany, Serbia, Croatia, etc. will FIBA actually dilute their tournament all for the sake of promoting their own club competition? Or is national team competition so important that those countries will wise up and push their secondary clubs to the Champions League over the ULEB-sponsored one? This year, it seems like those countries are taking their chances, but if the sanctions do become serious and teams are disqualified from competing in FIBA play, it makes one wonder if 2017-2018 will have a very different Eurocup field.

Will the Euroleague Changes and Issues with FIBA Have a Negative Effect on European Basketball?

cska-moscow-champ-euroleague-final-four-berlin-2016-eb15

Though the Euroleague season is well over (With CSKA Moscow claiming the trophy in a thrilling overtime win over Fenerbahce Istanbul), there hasn’t been any lack of excitement or headlines surrounding the Euroleague competition as it prepares for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Most of the attention however has been of the controversial variety, especially with the change of the season format, as well as the Euroleague’s issues with FIBA, who is trying to create their own major club competition for the first time since the FIBA Suproleague in 2001.

In terms of the first point, the Euroleague will be making some major changes to their competition, as they will do away with their multi-round format and instead go to a longer, more-traditional regular season model. Traditionally, the Euroleague first round is only 10 games long, with 24 teams split into 4 groups. After the 10 game season, the Top 16 teams (top 4 in each division) advance to the second “Top 16” round while the remaining 8 teams get regulated to the Eurocup (the second-tier league in Europe) for the remainder of the season. In the Top 16 round, the teams are split into two groups and compete in a round-robin format over a 14-game schedule. At the conclusion of this slate of games, the best four teams in each group advance to the playoffs for a Best of 5 series. The winners of those playoff series then advance to the Final Four, where it is single elimination from there.

For those American fans unfamiliar with European basketball, think of this format as the World Cup meets old-school first round of the NBA playoffs with the NCAA Final Four. It’s a bit batshit and it can cause some weird-ass moments like this due to the Euroleague’s controversial “scoring margin” procedure (similar to soccer), but it does provide for some interesting drama with each game’s importance so magnified for advancement.

However, the main issue with this format is that Europe’s most recognizable and lucrative teams may not always make it past the first round, which was mostly evident this year. Due to lackluster performances and some organizational turmoil, A License teams (established clubs who participate in the Euroleague regularly due to their massive status in the club scene) such as EA7 Emporio (from Milan, Italy) and Maccabi Fox (from Tel Aviv, Israel) missed the Top 16, and thus, the Euroleague lost a considerable amount of their fanbase after the first round due to their “off years”. This was a big blow especially since both these teams have popular appeal beyond their home countries (especially in the case of Maccabi), and it’s a lot harder for general Euroleague fans to get excited for teams that don’t necessarily have much Euroleague history not to mention aren’t guaranteed to be back the following season (as was the case with teams such as Cedevita Zagreb from Croatia and Khimki Moscow from Russia, both teams who will not be participating in the Euroleague next year).

Thankfully, the new format will solve some of those “fan” issues listed above. As detailed in the Euroleague’s 10-year agreement with IMG, the “condensed” 16-team format (from 24) and extended regular season schedule (30 rounds instead of the combined 23 rounds from rounds 1 and 2), the Euroleague now will have a more established league that guarantees longtime and well-known clubs will be on the international stage longer for the benefit of European basketball fans (not to mention these clubs’ fans who generate a lot of revenue). This new format also benefits the fans because fans will get to see their clubs play all the top teams, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the past format. If a team got bounced early, fans might not have seen them play a fellow country rival or another big-time European club. But, with the extended schedule, every one of the 16 teams will play one another, which will generate better match ups during the regular season, while still keeping the same competitive spirit that makes the Euroleague so unique.

Of course, one of the drawbacks with the creation of this new format means there will be 8 less teams playing in the Euroleague, which makes it a bit of a bummer for the smaller clubs, as well as basketball fans who appreciate the underdog. The wild card slots have reduced from 4 to 2, which means underdog stories like Lokomotiv Kuban this year, who were playing in the Eurocup a year ago and made it to the Final Four this season despite being a wild card, will be a lot less likely. Also, with A license teams less likely to see changes in its composition (i.e. lose their license and not participate in the Euroleague), it also means that international fans will not be able to see European clubs aside from the usual powerhouses like Barcelona, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Maccabi. In my case, it was disappointing that after the first round I was not able to follow other Euroleague teams such as CSP Limoges (from France) and Stelmet Zielona Gora (from Poland) after they were bounced from the first round. With this new format, I will be hard pressed to see them at all, let alone 10 games of them.

That being said, while the limited amount of teams hurts the more “under-the-radar” clubs, it does strengthen the Eurocup, the ULEB (Union of European Leagues of Basketball) and second-best competition in Europe (the winner of the Eurocup advances the next year in the Euroleague). The Eurocup will now follow the format of the old Euroleague with the multi-round format, and with the addition of more teams next year who probably were good enough to compete in the Euroleague, the Eurocup will undoubtedly be more competitive, and hopefully this could generate interest in the Eurocup being televised more since the quality of the competition has increased. For international fans like myself, the lack of any television coverage of the Eurocup keeps it from being followed or covered more closely, but an increase of good teams could change that, as better games will make it more exciting and desirable to basketball fans who want to see other competition outside Europe’s main league.

argentina-lithuania-130829-670

The changes in format however to the Euroleague and Eurocup however has produced a lot of ill will though as of late with FIBA, who is trying to get back into the European club scene with the creation of their own league: the FIBA Champions League (named after the FIFA counterpart). FIBA has been trying to get back into the European club scene ever since FIBA lost the rights to the competition after the 2000 season, when the clubs formed their own league independent of FIBA through the Euroleague Basketball Company. Because FIBA did not have any copyright on the “Euroleague” name, this organization was able to get away with it, and thus FIBA lost its main source of competition revenue outside their international competitions such as the European championship (now called Eurobasket) and World Championship (now called World Cup) just to name a few. However, considering international competitions are limited to a bad time for basketball on the calendar (the summer months after all club competitions have ended) and aren’t annual events, they are definitely far less lucrative then the club competition scene now under the guidance of the EBC.

FIBA over the past couple of years had been looking to lure some top clubs back to FIBA with the creation of the Champions League, but after the 10-year deal with IMG, getting any top clubs was out of the question. So, it appeared that FIBA, to keep some kind of good will with the EBC in order to preserve their own international competitions, was going to settle with being the “second-tier” league, perhaps replacing or competing with the Eurocup. However, while there seemed to be some interest early-on, and even some agreements, it appears FIBA will be on the outside-looking-in when it comes to building this new competition, as many of the teams that FIBA was desiring look to be participating in the ULEB’s Eurocup rather than FIBA’s Champions League.

As expected, FIBA did not take this lying down. They threatened to suspend and not allow countries who will participate in the Eurocup and even Euroleague to participate in their international competitions such as the Eurobasket, which is due in 2017. This included power countries such as Spain, Serbia, Greece, Israel and even Italy, who lost their duties hosting the 2017 Eurobasket due to this controversy over club participation. However, despite FIBA’s power moves, they have not been able to have much impact, as a Munich judge ruled an injunction that prevented FIBA and FIBA Europe from sanctioning these countries and clubs for joining the Eurocup instead of the Champions League. Hence, no suspensions have been given out, though FIBA is working to see if it can reverse the injunction in the near future.

With all these changes lurking for 2016-2017 as well as the ongoing controversy between the EBC/ULEB and FIBA, it will be interesting to see how things will pan out not just going into next year but once the 2016-2017 campaign begins in October as well. It is understandable to see FIBA’s frustration. As a global governing body, the lack of any kind of presence any more in the professional basketball scene beyond international competition has really hurt them from having the kind of impact FIFA enjoys in soccer. It’s bad enough FIBA really has little to no influence in the world’s strongest league (the NBA), but to have no influence in the second-strongest league in the world (the Euroleague) makes it even more painful. FIBA knows that having the Euroleague and Eurocup control would go a long way to strengthening their power as a global sporting federation, especially with online streaming’s ability to reach audiences not just in Europe, but all over the world. The Euroleague brand is greater than ever before on a global scale. Basketball fans want to watch more Euroleague, see possible “prospects” in action that will be making their way to the NBA. Euroleague TV’s launch this last year has proven that the Euroleague doesn’t need to be “lumped in” with FIBA and other club competitions (as was the case when it was with Livebasketball.tv) to be lucratively successful.

Unfortunately, this jockeying for “club basketball” coverage in some people’s minds has done European basketball more harm than good in the long run. Michael Long of Sports Pro Media, remarked this in his post examining the creation of the Champions League and its impact on European basketball:

What is certain, however, is that the creation of a second continental competition would appear a major step back for basketball in Europe. Some would argue that the introduction of a dual system would be disastrous, creating a situation reminiscent of 16 years ago when Fiba’s Suproleague survived just one season competing alongside the Euroleague that would subsequently replace it. Certainly, the European market at that time could not sustain two rival basketball competitions. Many doubt whether it can today

It does feel like in the quest for garnering control, both leagues may do more harm than good for European basketball in general, as Long points out above and in his article. After all, as mentioned in the Sports Pro Media piece, without the participation of 11 of the best European clubs teams, it will be hard to imagine the Champions League be better than a second-tier club competition in Europe, thus making FIBA’s endeavor seem like a waste of time, not to mention resources. At the same time, it would be nice to see if the Euroleague could show more cooperation toward unifying professional basketball in Europe, and perhaps by giving FIBA primary involvement in the “secondary” league, that would lessen tension between the two organizations, and not jeopardize international competition, which is important and special, especially when it comes to the World Cup and Eurobasket.

Of course, who knows what either sides wants. Maybe a “secondary” competition isn’t enough for FIBA. Maybe the Euroleague is not interested in preserving or growing international competition. After all, the NBA, the world’s premiere basketball organization, gets away with little FIBA involvement, and perhaps the Euroleague is trying to follow the same mold of finding success while being independent of its governing body (though to be fair, the NBA doesn’t have the kind of conflicts with FIBA Americas that the Euroleague and FIBA Europe has).

Whatever happens though between the Euroleague and FIBA Europe, the fate of European basketball, not just with clubs, but perhaps overall, will be going through some major changes this upcoming 2016-2017 season. A lot of questions that could have a strong impact on basketball in the continent will be decided: Will FIBA still have the Champions League running? Will the Euroleague’s new format resonate better with fans rather than the traditional method? Will the Eurobasket 2017 be hindered by lack of participation from some Europe’s traditional powers?

It will be interesting to see how fate will unveil itself to European basketball by the 2016-2017 season.

Fresh Friday: How to Dress Well, Sports, Chet Faker and Bosnia and Herzegovina a Budding Basketball Force in Europe?

How to Dress Well (the stage name of singer Tom Krell) is one of the rising PBR&B artists that is worth listening to extensively.

In this edition of “Fresh Friday, we’re going to take a look at some “chill” beats from some up and coming Indie artists, and examine Bosnia’s win at the FIBA Under-16 European Championships and whether or not it’s a sign that Bosnia is a European dark horse in development. As it is officially October, it means Fall is upon us, it is time to shelf the shorts and t-shirts and bring back the flannel and jeans, and basketball season is nearly upon us. Hence, it is even more important to build up some chill music on the Spotify queue in anticipation of basketball junkies’ late nights with NBA League Pass. D-League on YouTube, FIBA Global Pass (via LiveBasketball.tv) and Euroleague TV (if that thing will launch of course…if anybody has any updates, please let me know…I’m committed to covering more Euroleague for this blog) as well as cheap, but classy sundry choices that make the basketball addiction feel a bit more normal (even when in reality it is not).

This weekend’s beer of choice: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Cheap, classic, from Milwaukee (which is always a good thing and a hell of a lot better than St. Louis), and readily available in the Midtown area of Kansas City. There is a lot of good music going on this weekend in Midtown and Downtown Kansas City (with Of Monsters and Men being the headline weekend act in KC tonight at the Midland Theatre), so as you’re spending your money on tickets and covers to see some great shows, counter that with something cheap to drink that will make the night a little bit easier on your wallet.

So on with the music and basketball for “Fresh Friday.”

How to Dress Well “Repeat Pleasure”

There is something utterly endearing about “How to Dress Well”, the stage name of Chicago-based R&B singer Tom Krell. His style makes listeners hark back to older R&B acts like Immature and Boyz II Men, but has a modern-day Hipster-ish hue in the mold of say a Bon Iver (especially his voice, which makes one think of Justin Vernon, as it is hypnotic, but not exactly the easiest when it comes to deciphering lyrics). Krell started out as a nameless blogger who released new audio tracks anonymously via his blog “How to Dress Well” (which later became his stage name). In an era when self-promotion is huge in the independent music scene (I can’t tell you how many indie artists will follow random people just to get people to listen to their stuff…not that this is bad, but this is what it takes to get noticed musically as an artist), Krell seems to be a true artist, caring more about his craft than fame. He probably is more talented than most of the modern-day R&B singers out there in the scene now, but he goes unnoticed because he doesn’t have the marketability (he doesn’t have the flashy style or appearance of a Ginuwine or Tyrese for example) or product-promoting aggressiveness of some up and coming artists. But, that is refreshing, and it’s just a matter of time before “How to Dress Well” becomes more mainstream. His albums, including his most recent, “What is this Heart?” have all received rave reviews, so he is on the cusp of becoming a bigger name in the indie and R&B scene.

The track above, “Repeat Pleasure” is classic “How to Dress Well”: a nostalgic but chill R&B tune that is great to listen when un-winding from a long week day or a long night out…especially if you are spending it with a significant other (wink…wink…)

Sports “Panama”

I witnessed Sports playing live at “The Riot Room” in Westport about a month ago. They looked like something straight out of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Dazed and Confused” and I guess I was expecting some kind of Punk Rock act. Instead, I was greeted with a super chill, heavily electronic group that featured a nostalgic 80’s sound that made you think of 80’s artists like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins. I was thoroughly entertained by their set, even as they struggled to get the sound they wanted from their equipment and the sound system.

From Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sports has one album out “Naked All the Time” which just recently came out this summer to some good reviews. The album is worth a listening to on Spotify or buying on ITunes, as many of the songs are the kind of hypnotic, hip and head swaying tracks that are great to jam to at a small get-together when you just need something to fill the space but not overpower the people in attendance. People will remark that it sounds familiar, as if it were something from the 80’s, and that is where you can come in and say it’s actually a band that is currently active. Sports is that kind of “Wow, I didn’t know they were an active band” remark-generating act. By knowing who they are, it will make you seem “cool” and “cultured” in the music scene with friends and even acquaintances, even if you only know them because you stumbled upon them by accident one Friday night in Westport.

So yeah, keep “Sports” on the playlist, especially “Panama” which is one of their albums’ best tracks.

Chet Faker “No Diggity”

Any time Hipster culture can clash with my own personal nostalgia, I am hooked. That was the case when I was listening to one of Spotify’s playlists (Indie Chill: Covers) and stumbled upon this. I loved this song when it came out performed by Blackstreet. I was in like the fourth or fifth grade, and this single was in my music collection along with Keith Sweat, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, and AZ Yet. And yes, I was in the fourth and fifth grade. And my mom was totally cool with me listening to this music. Music that featured lyrics like this, from AZ Yet’s “Last Night”.

Last night
I was inside of you
Last night
While making love to you
I saw the sun , the moon
The mountains and the rivers
I saw heaven when I made sweet love to you

Again. I repeat. I WAS IN THE FOURTH AND FIFTH GRADE WHEN I WAS LISTENING TO THIS. By the time we talked about sex ed in 6th grade, I knew a lot about the sexual reproduction process because that’s all that was talked about in my music collection. Maybe that’s why my mom let me listen to all that R&B: Keith Sweat, Blackstreet and AZ Yet could teach me about the “Birds and the Bees” so my parents didn’t have to.

As for Chet Faker’s rendition, it is not the original Blackstreet of course, but for covers it stands out firmly on its own. I like the chill, lo-fi remix to the classic R&B track, and it is the perfect track to jam to while reading or writing or just hanging out in your apartment. Faker has a fantastic voice and unique sound, like lounge meets indie pop meets soul. He’s worth checking out more of if you dig any of the three listed above, with his first major EP “Thinking in Textures” being a good start.

Replay of the Week: Bosnia and Herzegovina-Lithuania FIBA U16 European Championship

Bosnia and Herzegovina may be one of the most intriguing basketball countries as of late. While we know about the impact Jusuf Nurkic had as a rookie with the Denver Nuggets, the intimidating center may be just the tip of the iceberg of what kind of potential Bosnia and Herzegovina may have in the future. BIH didn’t do great in the FIBA Eurobasket 2015, as their Men’s National Team went 1-4, finished last in their group, and failed to make it out of group play (though they did have an exhilarating win over Israel in their third game). However, the future of their program may be quite bright, as evidenced by their Under-16 Boys squad.

BIH’s youth team went undefeated in the tournament, with big wins over France and Germany in the early rounds, a big win over Spain in the semifinal, and then a 85-83 win over Lithuania in front of a packed pro-Lithuanian crowd (as the U16 European Championships took place in Lithuania). The game was also a showcase for BIH star Dzanan Musa who scored 23.3 ppg, nabbed 9.0 rpg and dished 6.3 apg in the 9-game span. The 6’6 shooting guard displayed an incredible shooting touch, as he regularly sized up Lithuanian defenders in the tape above and made all kinds of incredible “Curry-esque” shots from beyond the arc. Only 16, Musa is an international player that will be worth paying attention to and following as he grows older and transitions from development ball to more serious professional ball, be it in Europe or here in the States.

Also, another thing worth noting about BIH’s win over Lithuania was the celebration in Sarajevo following their victory. Just look at the picture below and see what I mean:

God, can you imagine what the city would do if they won the FIBA Eurobasket? Or World Cup?

I can’t…really I can’t considering that scene above and its massiveness. But I will say this: the U16 championship game and the BIH celebration in Sarajevo is a reason why I love European and International basketball. Fans really care…a whole hell of a lot…when it comes to national pride in sports, especially basketball.

The Veteran Squad and the New Coach: Can Smart Gilas’ Experienced Squad Mesh with New Head Coach Tab Baldwin?

The pressure is on new head coach Tab Baldwin (right) to help Smart Gilas Pilipinas show well in the FIBA Asia championship.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at Smart Gilas Pilipinas (the team name for the Filipino Men’s National Team), their experienced roster, and how they will fare in new head coach Tab Baldwin’s first international competition as Gilas head coach.

You can also find the previous post on China, Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi here.

Jayson Castro (7, white) is one of the key veterans for this Gilas squad at the FIBA Asia.

Smart Gilas is coming off one of their best stretches in international team play history, and yet, there still are a lot of questions lingering with this squad. In 2013, in front of Filipino fans in Manila, Gilas finished 2nd in the FIBA Asia tournament, which qualified them for their first FIBA World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) since 1978. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, they did win their first game in almost 40 years, as they beat Senegal 81-79 and put up sterling efforts in losses against established programs such as Croatia (81-78 in OT), Argentina (85-81) and Puerto Rico (77-73). Though the 1-4 record wasn’t ideal, it was obvious that Gilas had gained some necessary international experience on the big stage that would help the national team going forward.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for Gilas in the 2014 Asian Games, as the squad, without Andray Blatche (who didn’t qualify for the Asian Games due to naturalization issues, which were different for those games from normal FIBA ones), finished a disappointing 7th. The team went 1-2 in group play, with a disappointing 95-93 loss to Korea, and a huge 77-68 upset to Qatar, ranked 48th in the FIBA world rankings. The underwhelming performance, as well as issues with personality and player rotations resulted in long-time national team coach Chot Reyes being forced out and replaced with Tab Baldwin.

Baldwin is not totally unfamiliar with the national team, as he served as a consultant recently to Reyes and Gilas. However, he has a plethora of coaching experience at the international level, as he coached New Zealand (which is his national background, as well as American) from 2001-2006 and helped the “Tall Blacks” qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 2002. After his tenure as coach of New Zealand, he also had stints with Lebanon and Jordan, helping rebuild and raise the respectability of those programs to where they are today (Lebanon is ranked 34th and Jordan is ranked 29th).

But, while Baldwin did fantastic jobs with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan, his tenure with Gilas is unlike anything he’s ever coached. He hasn’t coached a national squad whose fans are as basketball-crazy as the Philippines. He hasn’t dealt with an organizational structure that has been its own worst enemy for decades (the Philippines have been suspended by FIBA from international play 3 separate times since the 1970’s). Baldwin certainly has the coaching acumen and chops to help Gilas become a power in Asia up there with China and Iran. But, the same could have been said of Reyes, who ended up being forced out after a successful stretch due to one shoddy performance in the Asian games.

Coming into the tournament as one of the favorites, Baldwin’s tenure started disastrously as Gilas was upset by Palestine 75-73, who just recently resurrected their national team basketball program, was unranked by FIBA and was playing in their first FIBA Asia tournament in history. Gilas played a sloppy game, marred by unforced turnovers, missed open shots (including a lot of missed bunnies, i.e. layups), and a lack of rhythm on the offensive and defensive end. Little known Jamal Abu Shamala scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 29, thus displaying Gilas’ lack of tenacity and urgency on the defensive end. If you look at the highlights below, it is obvious that Gilas at times coasted a bit too much, and that resulted in Palestine not only hanging around, but seizing enough opportunities for the upset victory.

While Gilas certainly could have packed it in after such a humiliating loss, Baldwin has rallied his veteran squad to win 3 straight games, as they beat Hong Kong (101-50) and Kuwait (110-64) by impressive margins, and beat Japan 73-66 in their first second round game late last night/early this morning. The team was led by Blatche who scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the Japanese game. Also, youngster Terrence Romeo had a solid game with 12 points and two steals, giving Filipino fans hope in the future of their program, which is undoubtedly Romeo.

Gilas has not changed much playing style-wise under Baldwin, as they still utilize the Dribble Drive offense to great extent and rely on their speed and quickness on both the offensive and defensive end. Gilas is at their best in transition, especially off live ball turnovers, especially with quick guards and wings such as long-time national team members Jayson Castro and Gabriel Norwood, and newer members like Romeo and Matthew Ganuelas. Even in their loss against Palestine, when Gilas was in transition, they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament.  When things slowed down, and they were forced to create offense in the half court, they tended to struggle and be wildly inconsistent.

Unlike China, which is extremely young, this Gilas team is a more veteran squad, as they have an average age of 31 and have only two members of the team 25 and under (Ganuelas and Romeo). Thus, the emphasis with this squad is “win now”. That is especially evident with the inclusion of naturalized citizen Blatche, whose inclusion on the team has sparked a lot debate on the presence of naturalized citizens who have little to no apparent connections to the countries they represent. If you haven’t read it already, take a retrospective look at this piece by Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew, the author of “Pacific Rims” and a leading authority on Filipino basketball. It definitely gives some perspective on why Blatche is not only on the Filipino team, but how he has adjusted to not just the team, but the culture of the Philippines as well. It may change your view on Blatche or other naturalized players playing in FIBA international competitions (Jerome Randle of Chicago did this with Ukraine in this recent Eurobasket). It may not. At the very least, it will give you more information and perspective on the process.

Gilas will need a strong, and refined, performance from Andray Blatche to win the FIBA Asia championship and qualify for their first Olympics since 1972.

But back to Blatche, he as well as other veterans such as Castro, Norwood and forward Jean Marc Pingris are essential to Gilas’ chances at this FIBA Asia championship. Blatche especially shoulders a majority of the burden, as Gilas has struggled against teams in the past with bigger, more natural post players before Blatche arrived. In the FIBA Asia championship game in 2013, Iran bullied Gilas thanks to former NBA player Hamed Haddadi. That being said, Gilas did not have Blatche then, and now, Gilas has that weapon in the post to go head to head with Iran’s best player. It definitely makes their game on Monday night one worth watching, just for that Blatche-Haddadi matchup alone.

If Baldwin can do anything to improve this Gilas squad, it may center on utilizing the talents of his players within Gilas’ system, and preventing them from playing out of control. This veteran squad has many players who have been playing professional ball for a long time, and playing international competition is a whole lot different due to so many different talents needing to mesh together in such a limited amount of time. Many of the players play together or against one another in the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association), so they are used to the Dribble Drive style that is primarily played in the PBA (though the Triangle is utilized a lot, thanks to successful PBA coach Tim Cone). However, for some, Blatche especially, since he plays professionally in China, this adjustment can be a process.

How Baldwin handles and manages this issue will be key, primarily with Blatche. Even early on this tournament, it seems like Blatche can be a “ball-killer” on offense, preferring to play at the top of the arc rather than down in the block (which is something he’s always had a problem with, especially in the NBA with Washington and Brooklyn) and go 1-on-1 with his head down and not seeing the open wings sitting in the corners for the 3-point shot. Blatche is multi-talented, and when he’s on, he is probably one of the best players in the FIBA Asia player pool. But when he’s off, he can be a high-usage rate killer that can easily sink teams and squander leads, as was the case time to time in their loss against Palestine.

Gilas needs Blatche to be successful. There is no downplaying that. But, Gilas as a whole is better when they’re penetrating to the rim, kicking out to open shooters for three’s or finishing for layups. Watching players like Castro is so enjoyable to watch because he fits in the Dribble Drive so seamlessly, as he is able to time and time again on the drive finish at the rime gracefully or easily find his teammates beyond the arc for open shots. If you watch these highlights against Kuwait, this is Filipino basketball in a nutshell: fast-paced, shooting three’s, and aggressive play on both ends.

Blatche can fit in this, and he has fit in it before. But when he tries to do too much, tries to dribble too much, tries to play 1 on 1 too much and settles for lackluster mid-range shots, he is limiting himself as a player and limiting Gilas’ chances at being consistently successful. That is Baldwin’s challenge as Gilas coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure out this challenge as Gilas progresses further and faces tougher competition deeper in the tournament (starting with Iran).

There is no doubt this Gilas team is arguably one of the best in the country’s history. And after playing in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, it would be a tremendous boost for the country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, which the Philippines has not qualified for since the 1972 games in Munich. Gilas has the experienced horses in place, and Baldwin has done a tremendous job with this team after their early set-back against Palestine. However, playing their style of play against Hong Kong and Kuwait is one thing, doing it against Iran, China and Korea is another. If Baldwin can get Gilas to play their style and play it efficiently against Asia’s powers, then it is strongly possible that the Philippines will break their long-time Olympic drought much like they broke their FIBA World Championship drought in the last FIBA Asia in 2013.

The Superstar and the Phenom: How Yi Zianlian and Zhou Qi are Key to China’s Chances at the FIBA Asia

Yi Jianlian (red, left) and Zhou Qi (red, 15) are two players that the Chinese national team will rely on in their quest for a FIBA Asia title.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at China and their two stars: Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi.

China is ranked no. 14 in the FIBA World Rankings and has a long-standing history as one of the more dominant nations in Asian basketball as they won 14 out 16 FIBA Asia championships from 1975 to 2005. However, they haven’t been on the Global radar the past few years, especially following the retirement of Yao Ming. After winning the 2011 FIBA Asia championship, the Chinese team finished a disappointing 12th in the 2012 Olympics, and then under-delivered in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship finishing 5th, their second worst finish in their history of participating in the tournament (they finished 10th in 2007). Because of their lackluster finish, China missed out in last year’s FIBA World Cup, only the 2nd time they did so since they started participating in the FIBA World Championship (now World Cup) with the other being 1998 in Greece.

China has struggled against other global powers in the past, as the highest they have ever finished in Olympic or FIBA World competition was 8th. That being said, their grasp over Asia has never been questioned until lately, especially with the rise of programs such as Iran (17), South Korea (28), Jordan (29) and the Philippines (31). To the Chinese’s benefit, they will be hosting this year’s FIBA Asia championship, and the home court advantage has seemed to benefit the home country teams, as the Philippines used the raucous crowds to earn a silver medal finish in 2013 (helping them qualify for their first FIBA World Championship since 1978), and the Chinese finished first in 2011 when the Asia Championship was in Wuhan, China. Iran may be a more accomplished team right now considering they are the reigning Asia Championship winners, and Korea may be one of the trendier teams to pick, as they did win the Asia Cup last year. However, one has to believe, with an Olympics berth on the line, that China will see this tournament as a “must-win” and thus, be considered the favorites.

If China is going to win this year’s Asia championship, they are going to need strong performances from their post players, specifically long-time, but controversial star Yi Jianlian and 19-year-old phenom Zhou Qi. The Chinese team has some athletes, speed and can surprise people with their shooting, especially thanks to young guards like Guo Ailun and Zhou Peng, who have demonstrated a strong ability to create offense and shoot beyond the arc early in this tournament. But China’s real strength is in their length, as they sport four 7-footers on their roster. If China wants to get back to the Olympics and reclaim their dominance in the Asian basketball scene, they will have to own the post and glass offensively and defensively.

The most crucial 7-footer of the bunch has to be Yi Jianlian. Now 27-years-old, Yi is the vet of this Chinese squad that’s average age is 24 years old. Considering Yi played with some of the best Chinese players in the past like Yao and Wang ZhiZhi, guys who played and succeeded in the NBA, it is time Yi exerts an Alpha Dog status on this Chinese team and carry them to success. Yi has a bit of a controversial status with mainstream fans, as he was the No. 6 pick overall in the NBA draft, but didn’t have much of an impact on the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks in his 5 year NBA career. Despite his disappointing American tenure, he has bounced back as a superstar-type player in the Chinese Basketball Association, as he averaged 27.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg on 57.5 percent shooting in 45 games in 2014-2015 for the Guangdong Tigers, and he averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg during Guangdong’s championship season in 2012-2013. Yes, he may not have been the transcendent international superstar that Yao was, but Yi has proven that he can be a highly-productive talent, especially in China.

And that is most important right now to Chinese basketball fans. Sure, he doesn’t have the global attraction of Yao, but he certainly has the potential to be the leader this young Chinese team needs in this Asia Championship and hopefully, the Olympics in 2016. Yi’s game has blossomed a bit, as he has become more physical on the glass, something he struggled to do in the NBA (he was routinely pushed out by more physical posts). However, where he excels the most is in the mid-range. While it may not be the most “efficient” way to play, it is obvious that Yi proves to be an exception to that rule. Yi sports a great and accurate jumper that he uses with regularity, which makes him a dangerous offensive threat. Bigger posts who sag will be victim to his mid-range jumper, while smaller posts and switches will get posted up and dominated around the rack.

Yi does show a tendency to struggle and be inconsistent against bigger posts (his match up with Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and the Philippines’ Andray Blatche will be interesting to follow), and sometimes he can be taken out of games when he’s doubled (as was this case in the first-half of the China-Korea game where the Koreans put up an early lead and neutralized the Chinese by throwing frequent double teams at Yi and keeping him away from the block). That being said, not many Asian squads have been able to have much lasting impact defensively against Yi’s offensive arsenal so far in this tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg on 55% shooting in 25.8 MPG through China’s first three games (which they are 3-0). If China wants to continue to do well in this tournament, and make their run to a championship, Yi has to continue his dominance and efficiency (he’s the leader in efficiency rating for China at 23) throughout the second round and beyond.

If people are looking for the next great Chinese “superstar” in the Yao mold, then simply look at the clip above. While Yi certainly was critical to China’s 76-73 comeback win over Korea, it was 19-year-old Zhou Qi’s 21 point, 8 rebound performance that proved to be the X-factor in the comeback win, which the Chinese were down as much as 18 late in the 3rd quarter.

While Yi tends to focus more offensively on the mid-range, Qi is more active around the rim, as he is known for high energy on the offensive and defensive end. As a 19-year-old rookie in the CBA with the Xinjiang Tigers, Qi led the CBA in blocks, and in one under-16 game in 2011, he recorded a triple double that involved a stat line of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 13 blocks. If Yi’s game can be compared to LeMarcus Aldridge’s, then Qi’s can be compared to Rudy Gobert, in which Qi is a more traditional post player skills and impact-wise.

Qi is already bit of a global sensation, as he made his ways in the FIBA developmental division as a teenager, and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, making him a well-known quantity in basketball circles beyond China and Asia. Andrew Crawford wrote a fantastic piece for Vice Sports (which is an underrated site for sports reporting, as well as general journalism) and talked about the pressure Qi faces in his homeland being China’s “next big thing,” as evidenced in this quote below:

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China’s consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou’s countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming’s retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.

While this is certainly pointing to Qi’s progression in the CBA and perhaps making the NBA, it is also a microcosm of what is expected from Qi in this FIBA Asia championship: if he is supposed to be the star everyone expects him to be, this Asia championship needs to be his coming out party, especially in his home country and an Olympic-berth on the line.

So far, Qi is living up to the expectations despite the pressures from the media and his home country fans. Though he hasn’t had the kind of impact on the glass as one would want or expect from a critical post player (he is only averaging 4 rebounds per game), he is second on the team in efficiency rating (14.7) and scoring (13.3) and he does lead the team in blocks with 1.3 per game.

I don’t think anybody is saying that Qi is the center piece of this team (that falls on Yi). But, Qi cannot underwhelm if the Chinese want to win the Asia Championship. So far, he’s overwhelmed. Let’s see though if he can continue that in the second round.