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.

Nando de Colo Returning is Good News for CSKA Moscow and European Basketball

Nando de Colo was key in CSKA Moscow’s Euroleague title game victory over Fenerbahce, and he will be key to a repeat in 2016-2017.

The eighth time was the charm for CSKA Moscow in 2016, as CSKA finally sealed the deal and won the Euroleague championship after eight straight appearances in the Final Four since their last championship in 2008 under former coach Ettore Messina (now with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant). And though it is early in the off-season, CSKA once again is loading up their roster and making key moves, aiming once again to make the Euroleague Final Four in 2016-2017 (they have made it every to the Final Four every year since 2001).

No other Euroleague team, with the exception of maybe Maccabi Tel Aviv, has been as active in acquiring and re-signing talent this early in the off-season as CSKA. They re-signed role players such as Ivan Lazarev and sharpshooter Vitaliy Fridzon to bolster their bench, and they also signed power forward Semen Antonov from Nizhny Novgorod to help add some depth in the post. Add that with re-signing of captain and veteran Victor Khryapa, as well as swing man Cory Higgins, who averaged 9.2 ppg in Euroleague play and shot over 50 percent from beyond the arc, and CSKA could have been satisfied with their roster composition for 2016-2017 and considered themselves done for the remainder of the off-season or for a least a good amount of time.

However, they pushed it up a notch and also re-signed Euroleague and Final Four MVP as well as VTB League MVP Nando de Colo to a 3-year extension.

And with that move, the chances of other Euroleague teams knocking CSKA Moscow from the top of the Euroleague just got a whole lot dimmer.

Despite some interest from some NBA teams, Nando de Colo re-signed with CSKA for 3 more years.

It was interesting how CSKA was able to re-sign their star point guard so quickly in the off-season, let alone to a 3-year extension. After two successful seasons with CSKA, which culminated in multiple MVP awards both in inter-continental as well as domestic play, there was some consensus that de Colo would try it again in the NBA, as some NBA teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, were interested in him at least coming out to Summer League to display how his talents have grown since he went back to Europe. De Colo was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, but he instead signed and played with Valencia Basket for three seasons before coming to the States. When he did come to the NBA, he played two seasons with the Spurs and a season with the Toronto Raptors before signing with CSKA Moscow after the 2014 season.

There was some incentive for de Colo to come back to America: he is only 28 years old, still relatively young and in the prime of his career, and he is coming off his best European campaign yet. In VTB play, he helped CSKA cruise to another league title, this time over Unics, as he averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.0 rpg while playing 22.6 mpg and shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. However, his Euroleague play is what attracted the attentions of so many American scouts and general managers: he averaged 19.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 3.6 rpg while playing 27.2 mpg and shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. While CSKA was also loaded with other key contributors like athletic center Kyle Hines and wizard combo guard Milos Teodosic, the numbers above show not only why CSKA went 24-5 overall in Euroleague play and won the Euroleague championship, but why de Colo also made All-Euroleague first team in addition to his Euroleague and Final Four MVP awards.

Add that incredible year, as well as a more openness to acquiring and playing international players by most NBA teams (especially after the breakout of Kristaps Prozingis last season in New York), and de Colo seemed to be in the perfect situation to at least test the waters in the United States. However, whether it was CSKA’s offer, the chance to repeat as Euroleague champs, or the lack of attractive NBA destinations, de Colo not only will be back at CSKA next year, but for the next three seasons as well.

And while that may be disappointing to some NBA fans who wanted to see the French point guard get a better opportunity the second-time around in the NBA, his return should bolster the Euroleague overall next season. De Colo is a fascinating and exciting player to watch. At 6’5, he has the shooting acumen of a shooting guard, but he can create off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates as well like any sound point guard. And with his size advantage, de Colo is able to post up smaller point guards and take advantage in the post, which was the case many times last year, as there aren’t many point guards in the Euroleague (or in Europe in general) that have the combo of size and speed to match up with de Colo.

If there are any doubts about de Colo’s impact and his ability to come through on the big stage, reference his performance in the Final Four, as de Colo proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams en route to the championship. In the semi-final, CSKA and de Colo faced Russian rival Lokomotiv, who only allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was second best in the league by only .1 point. What did de Colo do? He scored 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, and also had 4 assists as well. Take a look at his performance in the highlights below.

And de Colo wasn’t finished that weekend either. In the championship game, CSKA faced Fenerbahce, who had the best defensive rating in the Euroleague last year at 100.1. (Remember, just .1 better than Loko!) And though de Colo was facing a tough, defensive Fenerbahce club, a seasoned coach who had won countless Euroleague titles before in Zeljiko Obradovic, and a well-traveled fan base from Turkey that packed the title venue in Berlin, de Colo didn’t miss a beat. The 28-year-old French national scored a team-high 22 points and had 7 assists and three steals in the 101-96 overtime victory. And though he and CSKA had some waves of inconsistency, de Colo came through when it counted in crunch time, as evidenced in the video of his performance below:

Is de Colo the best player in Europe? Right now, the argument is very tough to prove that he isn’t as of this moment. Yes, you could argue Ioannis Bourousis of Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) probably has the most impact to his team, as Bourousis’ combo of post scoring, rebounding and leadership was a key reason why Baskonia made the Final Four. You could also argue that teammate Teodosic might be the most entertaining player, even if he doesn’t have de Colo’s consistency. And lastly, you could argue that Quincy Miller, who will be with Maccabi next season, has the potential to be the most dynamic player in the Euroleague next year, not only terms of scoring, but defense and athleticism as well. He was crucial to Crvena Zvzeda’s success last year, and being with a bigger club and around more talent in Maccabi could put him in the discussion of the best players in the Euroleague next year.

However, until it is proven otherwise, it is de Colo’s title to lose in 2016-2017 when it comes to who is “the best current player in Europe.” And that makes CSKA so scary next year. The idea of Teodosic and de Colo once again terrorizing opposing defense on the perimeter is going to be beautiful and entertaining for Euroleague fans to watch, and harrowing for opposing coaches who will be game-planning to try and stop that combination. And de Colo is just the tip of the iceberg: his ability to score and dominate opens things up for the other players. One of the reasons Hines was so successful was that he was able to finish baskets on put backs or off of easy passes because there was so much attention on de Colo and Teodosic. Would Hines have had the kind of big-time year, despite being under-sized as a center, if it weren’t for de Colo? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot harder to imagine.

The Euroleague once again will be competitive next year. Fenerbahce will be a strong team again if they retain a lot of their talent, and they undoubtedly will add some more unexpected pieces (like Ekpe Udoh last year). Anadolu Efes will be a much better squad next year with new head coach Velimir Perasovic coming over from Baskonia, (even though the future of Dario Saric is in doubt). Maccabi improved their roster and also got a new head coach in Erez Edelstein, and I expect that Greek powers Olympiacos and Panathinaikos will be much improved after disappointing Euroleague seasons.

However, CSKA is the team to beat and de Colo is the reason why. The 28-year-old reigning Euroleague MVP is so key to CSKA’s success and the fact that CSKA was able to re-sign him to three more years shows what kind of lengths financially the Russian power will go to keep their top place in the European basketball scene.

And even if you aren’t a CSKA fan, de Colo coming back is great for European basketball. It shows how far European basketball has come, and that being the best player in Europe is a title worth staying for and worth building upon when it comes to basketball legacy. Success in the NBA isn’t the only indicator of professional basketball success, and perhaps that is what de Colo is trying to do: show that being a legend in Europe is quite a title to have, and that you don’t need to be another Dirk or Tony Parker to validate your existence as a European basketball player.

I applaud de Colo for his decision, and I look forward to seeing him and Teodosic continue to tantalize basketball fans, and tear opposing guards up in the Euroleague next season.

Fresh Friday: PBR&B and Spain Out-Duels France in the Eurobasket

The Weeknd (left) and Frank Ocean are two “PBR&B” artists worth jamming to this weekend (or all weekends in general).

Every Friday, I’m going to post a few music choices and a game replay you should watch to fill your weekend. I know I have tried to do the weekly “themed” posts before in the past, but this one is so simple and up my alley that I feel comfortable making it a weekly thing.

For those who don’t know, PBR&B is something I’m relatively new to and have been digging as of late. The official definition of PBR&B is this according to Wikipedia:

PBR&B, also referred to as R-Neg-B, hipster R&B, indie R&B and alternative R&B, is a term used by music journalists to describe an emerging, stylistic alternative to contemporary R&B.

I am a big fan of R&B, or at least old-school R&B and have been rather disappointed and put off by most R&B and Hip Hop music nowadays that is in the Lil Wayne and Gangster Rap varieties. However, PBR&B, as well as some emerging “Hipster” rap artists (such as Post Malone and OB OBrien), have suddenly emerged as constant plays in my Spotify playlists. I’m still relatively new to this genre of music, but I have a feeling PBR&B is going to join my music collection in the next few months.

Also, I am going to post the France-Spain Eurobasket 2015 game in its entirety. I’ll go into more reason why you should re-watch that game rather than another SEC or NFL football game this weekend.

Blood Orange “Stuphin Boulevard”

Blood Orange’s “Stuphin Boulevard” is the kind of track you pop in when you’re cruising in the streets of Kansas City and it’s 1 to 2 a.m. and you’re not quite ready to go home, but you are unsure what to do. The track has a surreal, haunting, chill beat to it, making it the perfect late night “jam in your car when you’re alone” track.

Blood Orange is the stage name of Dev Hynes, a British Indie Pope and R&B singer who epitomizes what it means to be PBR&B. Hynes was formerly known as “Lightspeed Champion”, but has found his niche under the “Blood Orange” name. He has created two albums under the “Blood Orange” moniker: “Coastal Grooves” which came out in 2011 and “Cupid Deluxe” which came out in 2013.

Frank Ocean “Pyramids”

Frank Ocean is pretty much a household name with those who give a damn about Hip Hop or R&B music in any kind of capacity. Whether it is the popularity he generated from his 2012 album “Channel Orange” or his cameo in popular mainstream tracks such as “No Church in the Wild” which featured him, Jay-Z and Kanye West, PBR&B and Hip-Hop aficionados can appreciate what Frank Ocean has to offer. Pyramids is the ideal Ocean track: funky, poignant and chill in a way that makes it the perfect track to put on in multiple scenarios. Whether it is a small get-together with cronies or when you’re hanging out before making your way out to the social scene in the city, “Pyramids” hits all the right spots.

And, at nearly 10 minutes long, “Pyramids” is the rare “long” track that doesn’t feel long. Even at the 8 minute mark, I’m still yearning for Ocean’s track to continue its trance-inducing beat, as it puts the listener in such a state of transcendent chill that is rarely touched these days by some of the more modern R&B artists. Ocean may have come onto the scene thanks to bigger names such as Kanye, but it’s obvious that Ocean, thanks to tracks like “Pyramids” has proven himself as a standalone talent in the R&B scene, especially the PBR&B one.

The Weeknd “The Hills”

With over 200,000,000 hits on YouTube, it is safe to say the Weeknd has reached somewhat mainstream status. But, you can’t help but feel there’s something so “anti” and “hipster” about the Canadian PBR&B artist. “The Hills” is the perfect microcosm of what the Weeknd is about: crazy ass lyrics that border on psychotic, and a sick, hypnotizing beat that thrusts you into the kind of “mood” that encourages you to be down for a long night in the Urban atmosphere. If there is anything that can be “classified” as “Friday Night Hipster” music, the Weeknd and “The Hills” would rank near the top.

There is a lot to like about The Weeknd and the state of Canadian Hip Hop, which seems to be pushing the PBR&B movement more than ever. The Weeknd may not be PC or the kind of music you can play around your 12-year-old cousins or at a family gathering with your 50-year-old Filipino aunts and uncles. However, for those who like to go out, explore the Urban scene at half past midnight, and like beats that put you in a “down” state of mind on a Wednesday or Thursday night, the Weeknd simply can’t be beat.

Replay of the Week: France-Spain, Eurobasket 2015 Semifinals

In 2014, despite playing on their home turf, Spain was upset in the FIBA World Cup by the French national team, which was playing without patriotic leader Tony Parker. Considering all the hype going into the FIBA World Cup was whether or not the USA team (without many of their superstars like Durant, LeBron, Wade, Paul, and Harden, to name a few) would be able to beat a talented and deep Spanish squad on their  turf, the French upset deflated what would be the eventual championship game in Madrid (which the USA cruised to).

In the Semifinals of the Eurobasket the following year, France faced off against Spain again, and it was pretty much a de-facto home game for the Les Bleus. With a raucous home country crowd, Parker back in action, center Rudy Gobert starting to enter “superstar” status, and Spain missing superstars such as Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, and Jose Calderon, it seemed like a given France would cruise to a championship game appearance in the 2015 Eurobasket.

Somebody didn’t relay that message to Spain, as they came out and upset France in overtime 80-75 in an exciting back and forth game. While one has to admire the play on both sides, it was Gasol whose star shone the brightest, as he dropped 40 points in arguably his greatest international performance of all-time. Hardcore basketball fans should watch this replay (despite it being commentated in Greek) for Gasol’s performance alone, as it may be the last  hurrah for one of the best international players to ever grace FIBA and NBA competition.

Have a great weekend! Keep “Schemin Up!”