Hapoel Jerusalem basketball players visit the Mahane Yehuda open-air market..
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKON)
Hapoel Jerusalem aims to overcome CEZ Nymburk of the Czech Republic in Ostend, Belgium, on Wednesday night for the first of what it hopes will be three wins in as many days on its way to the Euroleague regular season.
The eight teams in the qualifiers are vying for a single spot in Group A of the Euroleague regular season alongside Real Madrid, Efes Istanbul, Zalgiris Kaunas, Nizhny Novgorod and Dinamo Sassari of Italy.
The seven remaining sides will be handed a berth in the Eurocup regular season.
The qualifying tournament started on Tuesday night and will end on Friday.
Should Hapoel beat Nymburk, it will play on Thursday the winner of the game between Russian powerhouse Unics Kazan and Basket Zielona Gora of Poland.
Kazan’s star-studded roster, which includes former Maccabi Tel Aviv stars Keith Langford and Chuck Eidson, Israel international D’or Fischer and Greek guard Nikolaos Zisis, is the favorite to win the qualifying tournament.
However, Jerusalem coach Danny Franco insists he is completely focused on Nymburk, which has won 11 straight Czech championships and whose roster includes former Jerusalem star Tre Simmons and Czech veteran Jiri Welsch. Nymburk has added Czech great Lubos Barton, playmaker Derek Raivio, speedy guard Darius Washington, center Garrett Stutz and forward Christian Burns over the summer, with Lithuanian Kestutis Kemzura the side’s coach.
“We have been scouting Nymburk for a while and this is a very good team,” said Franco. “With all due respect to the teams we have faced so far, Nymburk is better and readier at this stage of the season.
This is a challenge. It won’t be easy, but we don’t expect things to be easy for us. We like challenges.”
Franco faced Nymburk as the coach of Maccabi Haifa in the Eurocup last season, guiding the Greens to a home win but losing on the road.
While Jerusalem is hoping to reach the Euroleague for the first time in more than a decade, Nymburk wants to finally make its regular season debut after failing to progress in its previous three appearances in the qualifiers.
Jerusalem enters the qualifiers brimming with confidence after beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 81-78 in the pre-season Winner Cup final last Thursday.
After two convincing wins over Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Tel Aviv on course to the final, Jerusalem claimed its first victory over Maccabi at its new arena, registering a confidence- boosting performance to lift the Winner Cup for the first time in five years.
“We weren’t surprised by the win over Maccabi, but we have already put it behind us,” said Franco. “We are facing a much bigger challenge.”
Only six senior players are back from last season, but they include Israel national team members Yotam Halperin, Lior Eliyahu and Yaniv Green, and Americans Bracey Wright and Derwin Kitchen, giving Franco an established core to build around.
Hapoel’s biggest signing of the summer was last season’s Israeli league MVP, Donta Smith, who was also being recruited by Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem also brought in up-and-coming Israeli guard Bar Timor, as well as American big-men Tony Gaffney and Joseph Jones.
“We showed commitment and coordination in the Winner Cup and we need to build on that in Belgium,” said Franco. “We are as ready as the rest of the teams in the qualifiers. This is a very early stage of the season and all the teams will look different in a few weeks. We will give our all in the hope of registering a great achievement.”