Hapoel Jerusalem will look to put its BSL performances behind Tuesday night when it starts its European season in France against Le Mans Sarthe Basket in a ULEB Cup Group D game.
The 2004 champs of the competition are once again among the big names in the ULEB Cup, alongside traditional powers Alba Berlin, Aris Thessaloniki and Unics Kazan of Russia, thanks to the big budget that new team president Arkadi Gaydamak provided. The question is whether that will be enough in what is arguably the toughest group in the competition and includes Virtus Roma, Dynamo Moscow and Frankfurt Skyliners.
The good news is that the top four teams from each of the four groups advance to the eighth-finals, from which point the games will be played in a home-and-away knockout format.
The game in Le Mans has drawn a ton of interest and will be broadcast live throughout Europe on Eurosport2, which isn't carried in Israel.
The Jerusalemites will see several familiar faces among their French opponents, who boast three players with Israeli experience - ex-Maccabi Tel Aviv center Huseyin Besok, Ironi Nahariya forward Eric Campbell and guard Jermaine Guice, who got his European career started with parts of four seasons at Elitzur Kiryat Ata.
Moreover, Hapoel power forward Ido Kozikaro, one of two players still on the team that lifted the ULEB Cup in '04, joined Le Mans last season to strengthen the side for the playoffs. Hapoel captain Meir Tapiro also played in France last season for Nancy.
Last year Jerusalem fans were optimistic heading into the season, but things fell apart quickly. Feuding between players and injuries got in the way and cost the team dearly as it was blown out in Portugal by lowly Queluz. That defeat - and every basket allowed and missed shot during every other game - proved to be the difference in the end as Hapoel failed to advance to the playoff round, losing out on a tie-breaker by two points.
This team is determined not to take any game lightly, but thus far the newcomers have had trouble coming together.
A positive sign came in the second half of Sunday's home win over Hapoel Tel Aviv as Jerusalem scored 48 points. Down the stretch the team got big baskets from point guard Horace Jenkins and sharpshooting Roger Mason Jr., two former NBA and Euroleague players who are expected to lead the way this season.
Big Mario Austin was also aggressive inside and finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, although he did shoot only 7-for-19 (36.8%).
Coach Erez Edelstein, who has used three different starting lineups so far in three BSL games and two State Cup games, will have to decide whether to give Tamar Slay a shot in the ULEB Cup games. Slay, whose natural position is shooting guard, is one of the few players that can match Campbell's speed and strength at the power forward spot and may earn his minutes there.
One problem Hapoel could face in France is how to stop 2.12-meter Besok. The Turk, who scored 20 in Le Mans's last game, a home loss to Strasbourg, will have a size advantage on every player that Hapoel tries to use against him. On the other hand, Besok is foul-prone and will be at a similar disadvantage against Jerusalem's smaller and quicker front line players.
Other players Hapoel will need to keep an eye on are former Kansas star Kenny Gregory, Pape-Philippe Amagou and Yannick Bokolo.
In Tuesday's other Group D games Virtus Roma visits Frankfurt Skyliners and Dynamo Moscow hosts Red Star.
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