(photo credit: Noam Galai)
The Oded Katash era gets underway at Nokia Arena Thursday night when Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Le Mans in its Euroleague opener.
Le Mans is one of the weaker team's in Group B and is an ideal opponent for the former Maccabi star player to get his Euroleague coaching career off to a winning start.
"I'm sure I'll be emotional, I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Katash said at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
"It's been eight years since my last game here. I never dreamed that this would happen, but here I am again. I think we're ready. This is a dangerous game despite the fact that we're supposed to win it with ease."
Besides its new coach, Maccabi will also have seven new players on its roster.
The newly constructed team thrashed Hapoel Jerusalem by 19 points in the Winner Cup final last week and, despite the absence of Tal Burstein and Will Bynum, looked relatively sharp.
Bynum returned to training on Tuesday, but is not expected to play against Le Mans. Burstein, who will have an operation on his foot on Thursday, will be watching the game from the stands. Maccabi will likely have to manage without the swingman for the entire group stage.
Without Bynum and Burstein, the playmaking responsibilities will be shouldered by Vonteego Cummings, Yotam Halperin and Derrick Sharp, who is starting his 12th season at the club.
Cummings, who averaged 12.9 points and 3.4 assists per game at Partizan Belgrade last season, will be one of the keys to Tel Aviv's success on Thursday and throughout the entire season.
The 31-year-old guard has the experience and skill to lead the team, but has never played at such a high-pressure club and might need time to settle in.
Thursday will also be the first chance for Maccabi's fans to see Marcus Fizer in competitive action. Fizer, who was selected fourth by the Chicago Bulls in the 2000 NBA draft, could potentially dominate in the Euroleague.
His massive size and soft hands give him an offensive advantage over almost every defender he will face, and his link-up play with Croatian center Nikola Vujcic should be a true delight for basketball fans.
Even without new additions Cummings and Fizer, Maccabi's roster is far superior to Le Mans'. The Frenchmen are starting their second straight season in the Euroleague, but will once more find it difficult to advance past the group stage. Le Mans only has a 10-man roster and its four foreigners - Philip Ricci, Samuel Clancy, Luka Bogdanovic and Nebojsa Bogavac - have little Euroleague experience.
"We feel a lot of excitement to start a new Euroleague season," Le Mans coach Vincent Collet told the Euroleague Web site.
"What's more, the draw gave us the honor to play our first game this year in one of the most mythical gyms and against one of the competition favorites.
"Our goal is to try to slow down their attack rhythm, but that's easier said than done because there are so many talents on this Maccabi team."
Israeli basketball fans should also get a chance to see one of Europe's top youngsters display his skills Thursday night. Nicolas Batum, 19, made his Euroleague debut last year. He has great physical attributes and many pundits expect him to be a lottery selection at the NBA draft next year.
Israeli Raviv Limonad will feel at home Thursday when he makes his first appearance in European basketball's premier competition for Le Mans. The guard had an excellent season for Ironi Nahariya last year and will have a superb chance at Le Mans to show he can play at the very highest level.
"It's really exciting to start the Euroleague season, and especially for me to come back to Israel, to play my first-ever Euroleague game in front of my family and friends," Limonad said. "I hope that we will do well against this strong Maccabi team."
On Wednesday, David Blatt's Efes Pilsen opened Group B with a 95-83 loss to Cibona Zagreb. Pilsen led by 13 points in the third quarter, but a 20-2 run by the hosts secured the win.
Aris Thessaloniki defeated Unicaja Malaga 87-83 in another Group B game on Wednesday.
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