Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009-10 Euroleague Top 16 Preview

The first stage of the Euroleague regular season has been completed and now it's time for the Top 16 stage of the 2009-10 season to begin. The extraneous fat (Asvel, Lietuvos Rytas, Orleanaise, Union Olimpija, EWE Baskets) has been sliced away and now we're left with a tightly packed group of 16 teams with little-to-no filler teams. Though, the Top 16 field could be slightly better if Fenerbahce Ulker and Lottomatica Roma had not underachieved in the first stage.

The Top 16 round starts on Jan. 27th and continues until March 11. The Top 16 is divided into four groups of four teams. Each team plays home & away against the other three teams in the group for a total of six games. The top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinal. The quarterfinals are a best-of-5 format that starts on March 23rd. The quarterfinal winners advance to the Euroleague Final Four in Paris on May 7-9.

Fans can watch select Euroleague games on ESPN360 live or on replay. ESPN360 will commence Top 16 stage coverage on Wednesday with CSKA vs. Unicaja (12:15 p.m. EST live). On Thursday, ESPN360 will show Regal FC Barcelona facing off against Maroussi (Greece) at 2:45 p.m. EST, a game which will be broadcast on NBA TV on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Panathinaikos vs. Partizan and Real Madrid vs. Efes Pilsen round out Wednesday's Euroleague schedule (games not shown on ESPN360). Four other games on Thursday besides Barca vs. Maroussi, highlighted by Caja Laboral (Tau Ceramica) vs. Olympiacos and Montepaschi vs. Maccabi.

Here is the complete schedule of Top 16 games which will air on ESPN360. The Panathinaikos-Barca game should be a keeper - those are the two big favorites, with last year's champion (PAO) against this year's dominant force so far (Barca):
- Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 12:15p: Unicaja vs CSKA Moscow
- Thursday, Jan. 28 at 2:45p: Maroussi BC vs FC Barcelona
- Wednesday, Feb 3 at 2p: BC Khimki vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 4 at 2p: Real Madrid vs Maccabi
- Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 2p: KK Cibona vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2:45p: Panathinaikos vs FC Barcelona

Below we examine the groupings:

GROUP E: Barcelona; Panathinaikos (PAO); Paritzan; Maroussi
This grouping is pretty top-heavy, though Partizan can't be taken lightly. Barcelona absolutely steamrolled through the first stage of the Euroleague season. Have a ridiculous scoring margin of +20.8--nine of ten 1st round games were won by at least double digits. Barca easily dispatched a very good Montepaschi Siena twice (+19 at home, +15 on road).

Barca has looked superb on both ends of the floor--great at every facet of the game--and is currently the best team outside the NBA. This team has a lot of raw talent that has subjugated egos and accepted roles to form a scary, cohesive unit. Rubio, JC Navarro, Pete Mickeal, Erazem Lorbek and Fran Vasquez have all played great for Barca. My partner should have a more detailed look at Barcelona coming soon.

Reigning Euroleague champs Panathinaikos' only two first round losses came at the hands of Real Madrid. PAO's roster has not really been at full force yet because of injuries scattered across the roster. Marcus Haislip was recently acquired to help cover for the injuries on the frontline. Minny TWolves property Nikola Pekovic continues to mahhandle opponents in the post and leads PAO with 15 ppg on 60% shooting in only 22 mins per game. Vasilis Spanoulis continues to solidfy his standing as one of the best guards outside the NBA by providing PAO with 11 ppg & 4 apg.

Partizan has been a mild surprise this year since this season was projected to be a rebuilding year. Though, Partizan's Top 16 chances have taken a hit with the probable extended absence of Aleks Maric due to injury. Maric was having a breakthrough year before injury, averaging 17 ppg on 72% shooting & 9 rpg. Maroussi surprised by advancing out of the first round and advancement to the quarterfinals ain't happening.

GROUP F: Real Madrid; Montepaschi Siena; Maccabi; Efes Pilsen
I would say Group F is the toughest group overall, not much separates the four teams. Should be the most competitive group with loads of talent spread among the four teams.

The vet-laden bunch in Real Madrid has performed admirably under the guiding hand of Ettore Messina. Darjus Lavrinovic has been one of the top players so far this season, averaging 14 ppg on 62% & 5.4 rpg. Solid play from the likes of Pablo Prigioni, Sergio Llull, Novica Velickovic, Garbajosa, R. Kaukenas and Louis Bullock. Madrid has recently added more firepower to an already overloaded roster with the addition of Marko Jaric and Ante Tomic (NBA prospect).

Montepaschi Siena provides Group F with another veteran-packed team that is extremely tough. Siena's only two losses came at the hands of Barcelona. Siena is a devastatingly effective defensive team that combines a stout base defense with an ability to cause a boatload of TOs. Ksystof Lavrinovic is mirroring his twin brother's strong play, averaging 15 ppg & 5.6 rpg for Siena. Romain Sato put up 13 ppg & 4 rpg in the first round, not to mention great defense. Take very good care of the ball on offense which which allows Siena to have a superb TO margin. Also, have shot the long ball very well--44.5% from 3pt. land in the first round.

Maccabi's strength lies on the perimeter with their collection of American guards: Alan Anderson, Chuck Eidson, Andrew Wisniewski, Doron Perkins and David Bluthenthal. Point-forward Eidson is having another strong season in Europe thanks to multi-skilled game--Chuck led Maccabi with 13.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3 apg and 2 spg. Alan Anderson (12.6 ppg) and A. Wisniewski (10 ppg) have also been solid so far providing scoring next to Eidson. Need to get a little bit more production from their frontline in this round of play, especially since Maciej Lampe was let go.

Efes Pilsen was rather unimpressive in the opening round, finishing 4-6, but Pilsen has plenty of raw talent to challenge for a quarterfinal spot. Pilsen's roster has not meshed well and would say their cohesion is the polar opposite of Barcelona's chemistry. Too many guys who need the ball in their hands--doesn't seem that Igor Rakocevic has been accepted as the #1 option by some of the other players. Need to figure out some pecking order going forward.

GROUP G: CSKA; Unicaja; Zalgiris; Asseco Prokom
CSKA Moscow lucked out being placed in the weakest group, and should advance to the quarters with little trouble. Stud vets Trajan Langdon and Ramunas Siskauskas are once again shining in Euro play. Langdon leads CSKA with 15 ppg (50% from 3pt.) while Siskauskas follows with 14 ppg, 4 rpg and sizzling 58% 3pt. shooting. CSKA has gotten terrific auxiliary support around Langdon & Siskauskas from the likes of Vik Khryapa, Sasha Kaun, JR Holden & Z. Planinic. Still a solid defensive unit in Coach Messina's absence. Recently added Pops Mensah-Bonsu to help upfront with Matjaz Smodis' health status still dicey. Think 2nd place is up for grabs with Unicaja probably being the fave to join CSKA in quarters.

Unicaja looked superb early in the season but faltered the last few weeks. After starting 5-0, Unicaja went 2-3 to close out first round play and the two wins were both by only +2. Combine this with Unicaja's lackluster ACB record (9-10), and I'm really not sure how to read Unicaja heading into the Top 16. Not to mention, their best perimeter threat, Taquan Dean, moved to Caja Laboral for the Top 16 round. Unicaja can still turn to NBA draftees G. Printezis (14 ppg & 5 rpg) and Joel Freeland (11 ppg & 5 rpg in 20 mins per) for support. Also, PG Omar Cook has been one of the top PGs (leads league in assists) so far this season and is shooting the ball as well as he ever has.

Zalgiris sort of backed its way into the Top 16 thanks in some part due to the disappointing opening round play of Fenerbahce Ulker. Zalgiris finished the first round 3-7 but won the tiebreaker game vs. Ulker to end the opening round. Zalgiris has been led by former U of Virginia Cavs PF Travis Watson, who averaged 12 ppg and 11 rpg (4.4 off) in the first round.

Asseco Prokom (Poland) is a potentially dangerous team thanks to their collection of athletes. Led by Qyntel Woods, who was one of the top performers in the first round--17.5 ppg (2nd best in Euro), 6.7 rpg (5th best) & 2.4 apg. Asseco combo guard David Logan (5th-best scorer in Euroleague action with 16 ppg) adds more explosive scoring next to Woods. Asseco needs to shore up its outside shooting and is vulnerable to zone looks--27% from long range in first round.

GROUP H: Olympiacos; Caja Laboral; Khimki; Cibona
Olympiacos should win this group, but they still have a tendency to play to the level of their comp sometimes. They really should have finished the first stage undefeated like Barcelona instead of 8-2. Nonetheless, Oly can be deadly when they're focused, thanks to their bottomless tub of talent led by Linas Kleiza.

L. Kleiza is a serious Euroleague MVP candidate, currently leading the league in scoring at 17.6 ppg and his 7.7 rpg is good for 3rd best in the league. Also, have received nice contributions from Josh Childress (15 ppg), T. Papaloukas (7.6 apg), Milos Teodosic (11 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg), G. Bourousis (10 ppg & 4.6 rpg in 17 mins per) and Nik Vujcic in the first round.

Caja Laboralis led by Tiago Splitter, who averaged 14 ppg, 6 rpg & 2 apg in the first round. Caja could be even better in the Top 16 stage thanks to recent pickup of Taquan Dean from Unicaja and the return of Walter Herrmann from injury (missed most of 1st round). Dean gives Laboral a much needed scoring punch on the perimeter to complement Splitter.

Khimki has been solid so far this season and are imposing in the painted area thanks to frontcourt rotation of R. Javtokas, Timo Mozgov & Paulius Jankunas. Wings Kelly McCarty and Keith Langford provide point production for Khimki, while the vet Spanish PG combo of Raul Lopez & Carlos Cabezas ably steer the offense. Khimki can challenge Caja for the 2nd spot in Group H. Cibona's chances of quarters berth are slim to none.


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