Hapoel Jerusalem forward Lior Eliyahu.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Plenty of question marks are still hanging over the direction in which Hapoel Jerusalem is heading this season ahead of its first Eurocup Top 16 game against Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in Lithuania on Wednesday.
Hapoel safely came through the Eurocup regular season, advanced to the State Cup semifinals on Saturday and isn’t too concerned with its disappointing 6-6 record in the BSL, knowing the title will only be decided in a Final Four tournament in June.
However, it has rarely impressed this season, displaying a worrying softness on several occasions. Jerusalem has already lost by 20 points or more in five games, including to Bnei Herzliya in BSL action last week. It bounced back to beat an undermanned Herzliya 68-56 in the cup quarterfinals on Saturday, but coach Simone Pianigiani was quick to admit an improvement is required.
“We are at the end of December and we can say we are still in all the competitions, but I would like to build something better here,” he said.
The Italian has been pushing to strengthen the roster and his requests were partially answered with the signing of Malik Hairston on Monday.
The 29-year-old forward has been without a team since leaving AEK Athens in the summer. Hairston, who played for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA before moving to Europe in 2010, flew with the team to Lithuania and will initially only play in the Eurocup.
Vilnius advanced to the Top 16 from fourth place in Group A with a 3-5 record.
It is led by veteran scorer David Logan (18.1 ppg, 6.8 apg), with Arturas Gudaitis (13.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Drew Gordon (13.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg) also impressing in the regular season.
The Lithuanians have the fourth-best offense in the competition (88.2 ppg), but also the third-worst defense (also 88.2 ppg).
“When you get to the Top 16 every team is a tough team,” added Pianigiani.
“Mental toughness will be the key in this balanced group because there are only four teams now and every possession will be an important one. If we fight for every ball we will have a chance, but even the smallest letdown in concentration can be crucial.
“The team we are facing is one of the top offensive teams in the Eurocup,” added Pianigiani. “They have the ability to score many points and are a very good offensive rebounding team. We will have to try and contain them with an all-around team effort. If we are able to do this we can put ourselves in a good position in the game.”
Jerusalem also faces Russian teams Zenit St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod in Group G of the Top 16, with the top two to advance to the quarterfinals.
“In this short group stage we have to play well from the beginning, we cannot afford to start soft and let teams build a lead on us like we did in some of the previous games,” said Jerusalem guard Jerome Dyson.
“We all know how important it is to get off to a good start and I hope we will be able to play well enough in order to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The FIBA Champions League also returned from its short New Year break this week, with Ironi Nahariya and Maccabi Rishon Lezion still holding an outside chance to progress to the next round.
Reigning BSL champion Rishon is in seventh place from eight teams in Group B with a 4-6 record, but is just two games back of third place with four regular season contests to play. The top four teams from each group and the four best ranked fifth-placed teams will advance to the playoffs.
Rishon hosts Venezia of Italy on Wednesday, while Nahariya entered Tuesday’s game against AS Monaco in sixth place in Group A with a 3-7 record.