Most of the hype in Prague is whether Maccabi Tel Aviv can knock off Tau Vitoria for the second year in a row for on its way to a third straight Euroleague title. But even if Pini Gershon and co. knock off Vitoria, they will still have a tough test in the final.
Two European giants, CSKA Moscow and Winterthur Barcelona will clash in Friday's second semifinal eager to finally claim the title that they have work so long and hard for.
CSKA is making its fourth straight trip to the Final Four including hosting last year's edition but has never made it to the final. Barcelona is the last team not named Maccabi to win the title, victorious in 2003 when it hosted the event.
Barcelona topped CSKA 76-71 in that season's semifinal before going on the beat Benetton Treviso for the trophy. The coach of that Benetton squad was no other than today's CSKA boss, Ettore Messina.
While Messina may want to avenge that defeat, many on CSKA want revenge for another. Last season Barca became the first team to defeat highflying CSKA after a Euroleague record 17 wins in a row. The Russian champs had also reeled off 43 straight wins in all competitions before falling at home to Barcelona.
A number of players from that game will feature in Friday's clash, including several of the teams' high scoring guards CSKA's J.R. Holden (11.2 ppg) and Theo Papaloukas (8.4 ppg, 4 apg) and Barcelona's Jaun Carlos Navarro (15.1 ppg.).
Despite some talented interior players, this game has all the makings of being decided by the guards.
Shammond Williams, whose agent tried to broker a deal with Maccabi before the latter signed Will Solomon in the summer, leads the Barcelona guard corps with 12.2 points and 4.3 assists per game. Williams is also a 41.2-percent three-point shooter. Gianluca Basile and Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton, both veterans of Final Fours, and first timer Ed Cota give coach Dusko Ivanovic as deep a backcourt as there is in Europe.
CSKA counters with swingman Trajan Langdon (12.9 ppg.), who like Papaloukas and Navarro was nominated for first-team All-Euroleague honors, and David Vanterpool, a teammate of Thornton's when they lead Montepaschi Siena to the 2004 Final Four in Tel Aviv.
Of course the importance of the big men cannot be overlooked. Slovenian forward Matjaz Smodis (11.6 ppg) has stepped up for CSKA since injury ended star center David Andersen's season, while Barca's Greek Mikalis Kakiouzis (12 ppg) has emerged as one of the most versatile big men around.
It's no accident that these two Euroleague giants are back in the Final Four in a game where no team can be considered a favorite. On thing though is for certain... If Maccabi wins the first semifinal, assistant coach Dan Shamir will have another headache to worry about as soon as the nightcap tips off.
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