Progress to the Euroleague quarterfinal playoffs for a fourth straight year looks to be anything but straightforward for Maccabi Tel Aviv after European champion Olympiacos and Spanish powerhouse Caja Laboral Vitoria joined the yellow-and-blue and five more teams in Group F of the Top 16 on Friday night.
Maccabi clinched regular season Group B on Thursday, improving to 8-2 with a 78-62 win over Alba Berlin at Nokia Arena.
However, David Blatt’s team will have to significantly improve its play from the regular season if it has any intention of finishing among the top four in the Top 16 and advancing to the playoffs, with Barcelona, BV Khimki Moscow, Montepaschi Siena, Besiktas JK and Fenerbahce Ulker also all in Group F.
Barcelona looks to be the group’s strongest team on paper, with the Spaniards once more boasting one of European basketball’s best rosters, ending the regular season as the winner of Group D with a 9-1 record.
Olympiacos won the Euroleauge against all odds last season and despite losing coach Dusan Ivkovic, is looking like a challenger yet again after ending regular season Group C in second place with an 8-2 record.
Khimki was one of the surprise packages of the regular season, beating Panathinaikos on Thursday to improve to 6-4 and finish Group A in second place.
Maccabi knows all about Siena (5-5) after splitting its games with the Italians in the regular season, with Vitoria winning its final three games to advance to the Top 16 with a 4-6 record. The yellow-andblue can also expect a hostile atmosphere as well as a stern test when it visits Besiktas JK (5-5) and Fenerbache Ulker (5-5) in Turkey.
Tel Aviv will begin the Top 16 on the road against Siena on December 27/28, hosting Vitoria in its first home game a week later.
On Sunday, Maccabi will face Ironi Ashkelon in the State Cup last 16 at Nokia Arena.
Tel Aviv will of course be a firm favorite to advance to the quarterfinals, but Ashkelon will be entering the showdown brimming with confidence after claiming its fourth straight BSL win on Thursday night, thrashing Bnei Herzliya 94- 70 in a game postponed from last month due to Operation Pillar of Defense.
There will be two more all-BSL showdowns in the cup on Sunday, with inform Hapoel Eilat, which has won six of its past seven league games, hosting Hapoel Gilboa/Galil and the struggling Maccabi Rishon Lezion visiting Maccabi Haifa.
Also Sunday, Hapoel Jerusalem visits Ironi Nahariya of the National League and Hapoel Galil Elyon of the second division, which recorded the upset of the previous round when it knocked out Barak Netanya, hosts Hapoel Holon.
On Monday, Maccabi Ashdod welcomes Hapoel Tel Aviv in an all-BSL tie, while Hapoel Afula hosts Herzliya and Hapoel Kfar Saba plays Maccabi Be’er Ya’akov, ensuring there will at least be one team from the National League in the quarterfinals.