After the failures of recent seasons and the uncertainty of the past summer, Hapoel Jerusalem is in a desperate need of a winning start to the 2012/13 campaign.
The team’s early exit from the State Cup last season means that Jerusalem already begins its participation in the round-of-32 this year, visiting Maccabi Hod Hasharon of the National League on Tuesday.
Jerusalem’s pre-season performances were erratic at best.
In its final preparation games in the Winner Cup last week, Jerusalem crushed Hapoel Holon 93-69 in the quarterfinals before being blitzed in the first 10 minutes by Maccabi Ashdod on the way to a 69-59 defeat in the semis.
Once again, Jerusalem looks to have the deepest roster in the league besides Maccabi Tel Aviv, bringing in veteran Israeli guards Meir Tapiro and Raviv Limonad and talented American forwards Craig Smith, Courtney Fells and Josh Duncan.
However, if last week’s games are anything to go by, it seems that much of Hapoel’s fate this season will rest on the play of young American guard Jacob Pullen.
The 23-year-old former Kansas State Wildcat was superb in the quarters with 29 points and six assists in 32 minutes, scoring eight of 14 shots, including four threepointers.
However, he had just eight points on two of 15 from the field in the semis, also ending the game with zero assists.
To Pullen’s credit, he already understands that Jerusalem is its own worst enemy.
“The difference between the quarters and the semis was not our opponents but us,” he said. “We froze on defense and had many turnovers which resulted in easy points for Ashdod. I’m happy that it happened in the preseason because we need to learn from this game.”
The 37-year-old Tapiro returned to Jerusalem in the summer after experiencing one of his best seasons ever at Ashdod and his evolving partnership with Pullen, who is 14 years his junior, will be crucial.
“Meir and I are learning each other every day and improving our cooperation,” Pullen said. “I believe that with time, and the more we play, we will be able to do a lot of stuff together.”
Coach Sharon Drucker, who replaced the sacked Oded Katash in January, will want to forget about last season as soon as possible, but he is not underestimating the challenge he faces after Hapoel failed to reach the final of the BSL or the State Cup in each of the past four years.
“Perhaps the game against Holon went to our head and that is why we were very sloppy at the start of the semis,” Drucker said. “I think that defeat was a lesson for us. If we are smart enough we will learn from the loss that every game is a war and you can’t let anything distract you.”
Eight more round-of-32 games will take place on Tuesday, including: Elitzur Kiryat Ata vs Hapoel Gilboa Galil; Maccabi Kiryat Gat vs Hapoel Tel Aviv; Hapoel Galil Elyon vs Barak Netanya; and Hapoel Ness Ziona vs Bnei Herzliya.
Six teams advanced automatically to the round of 16, last season’s four semifinalists (Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Rishon Lezion, Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Eilat) and Ironi Ashkelon and Hapoel Afula, who received a bye in the draw.