After almost two years away, coach Tzvika Sherf will make his return to the BSL tonight when he guides Maccabi Rishon Lezion in its game against Hapoel Eilat.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
With just three games separating fifth and 10th place in the BSL standings, and with each team having 10 more regular season games to play over the next five-and-a-half weeks to complete the regular season, the battle for playoff qualification and seeding seems set to hold many more twists and turns.
Hapoel Holon (17-6), Maccabi Tel Aviv (17-6), Hapoel Jerusalem (14-9) and Maccabi Ashdod (14- 9) look to be the clear favorites to finish in the top four and secure home-court advantage in the bestof- five quarterfinal playoff series.
The battle for the remaining four playoff berths is still wide open though, with Hapoel Tel Aviv (12-11) and Hapoel Eilat (12- 11) holding an edge after their recent upturn in form. Hapoel Gilboa/Galil (11-12), as well as Maccabi Rishon Lezion, Bnei Herzliya and Ironi Ness Ziona, who are all tied at 9-14, also clearly still believe they can finish in the top eight, and perhaps even follow in the footsteps of the 2015/16 Rishon side that claimed the league title despite only entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
Rishon, in particular, has no intention of giving up on the season, replacing head coach Shmulik Brenner with veteran Tzvika Sherf on Tuesday, three weeks after signing last season’s Euroleague top scorer, Keith Langford, to a short-term deal.
Rishon chairman Itzhak Perry remembers well how he replaced Sharon Drucker with Arik Shivek in April 2016, and less than two months later Rishon won its first championship.
Despite the historic triumph, Shivek only lasted until the following February before Perry decided the team’s 10-10 record wasn’t good enough and he replaced him with Shmulik Brenner, who worked as Shivek’s assistant, as well as under previous coaches Drucker and Sherf.
Brenner didn’t make it through a full season either, with Rishon falling to 9-14 following Monday’s 82-79 defeat at Hapoel Tel Aviv, its fourth loss from the past five games.
Sherf, who has been away from the sidelines since guiding Maccabi Ashdod in 2015/16, coached Rishon in 1989/90, as well as in 2014, when he amassed a 6-12 record to finish the season and wasn’t handed a contract extension.
In the hope of avoiding a similar scenario, Sherf insisted this time to receive a contract until the end of the 2018/19 campaign, although his entire focus at the moment in on Thursday night’s game against Eilat.
Sherf, who has guided Maccabi Tel Aviv on five different occasions, winning 10 championships and six State Cups while reaching three Euroleague finals, has also coached in Greece, France, Poland and Russia during his career, as well as guiding the Israel national team in eight European Championships.
“I came here out of love for basketball. I wasn’t missing anything while watching from the outside,” said the 66-year-old.
“The team will be playing twice a week until the end of the regular season so we won’t have much time to practice. There is plenty I want to change and our goal is to reach the playoffs.”
Sherf sympathized with Brenner.
“I understand what he is going through. He is my friend and was my assistant and I have experienced this throughout my career,” added Sherf. “I told him that he needs to be strong and that this is the life of a basketball coach.”
Rishon faces a tough challenge in an Eilat team which has found its form under coach Drucker, winning six of its past seven games.
Elsewhere Thursday, Ashdod, which has won five straight contests and 11 of its past 13 since the turn of the year (only losing to Holon and Maccabi Tel Aviv), visits Bnei Herzliya.
In another showdown with playoff implications, Hapoel Tel Aviv goes to Ness Ziona.