Local hoops: Who can stop Maccabi Tel Aviv?

A look at the teams fighting it out in the Israeli Basketball Super League from Sunday night.

October 28, 2007 04:26
maccabi tel aviv derrick sharp 298.88

maccabi derrick sharp. (photo credit: AP)


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The 2007/08 BSL season will get under way Sunday night and the big question again is, can anyone dethrone 14-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv? The yellow-and-blue, which defeated Le Mans in the Euroleague on Thursday, faces a tough road trip to Ironi Nahariya in Matchday 1. Allon Sinai takes a look at the teams fighting it out in the Israeli Basketball Super League from Sunday night. Hapoel Jerusalem, which came within two seconds of toppling Maccabi last season, welcomes Hapoel Afula/Gilboa to Malha Arena on Monday. Also Sunday Ironi Ramat Gan hosts Bnei Hasharon and Meir Tapiro, Hapoel Holon goes north to play Hapoel Galil Elyon with Doron Sheffer making his third return to Israeli basketball and Maccabi Rishon Lezion plays Ironi Ashkelon in Rishon. MACCABI TEL AVIV For a second straight season Maccabi has gone through a complete overhaul. Just six of the players who were on the team's roster at the start of last season are still at the club and Oded Katash will be the side's third coach in three seasons. The close call at the Final Four title game last year against Hapoel Jerusalem meant Maccabi took no chances and assembled its squad and coaching staff early into the off-season. Marcus Fizer should be nothing short of unstoppable in the BSL and his link-up play with Nikola Vujcic, who is starting his sixth season with the team, will be pivotal in Maccabi's march to another title. Vonteego Cummings gives the side much needed experience at the guard positions, especially with Tal Burstein not expected to return from his foot injury any time in the near future. Terence Morris and David Bluthenthal are not only two superb role players, but also bring with them BSL experience that could prove crucial. Maccabi is once again a firm favorite to retain its title and it would take a dramatic yellow-and-blue collapse for this season to end any differently from the last 14. Player to watch out for: Omri Casspi. The 19-year-old is returning from a season-long loan at Hapoel Galil Elyon and has adapted well to life at the new Maccabi. Casspi, who scored 11.2 points and grabbed 2.9 rebounds per game last season, will get plenty of playing time in the league thanks to the Russian rule that states that at any given time a team must have at least two Israeli players on court. He has long been tipped as a future NBA draft selection and will get his chance to show why this season. Last season: 1st place, 25-2 in regular season play, winners of the Final Four. Best case: Katash claims the first of many unchallenged championships. Worst case: A repeat of last season's final. HAPOEL JERUSALEM In a few years Hapoel's 2006/07 season will be looked back on as a success. The team claimed the State Cup, its first title in 10 years, and came two seconds away from an historic championship. For now, however, last season's title game is still a painful memory Jerusalem is keen to dispel by finally taking a BSL championship. The early signs, however, aren't very good. The team is still looking for a big man to fill the void left by the departing Mario Austin. New American signings Ramel Curry and Will Blalock haven't settled yet and coach Dan Shamir will be relying on his Israeli squad members to carry the team for the early part of the season. Jamie Arnold and Sharon Sasson, who both joined from Tel Aviv, will help the side recover from the loss of influential captain Meir Tapiro and, together with Guy Pnini, Erez Markovitch and Dror Hajaj, will likely ensure the team plays for the BSL title for a third straight year. Player to watch out for: Guy Pnini. The ever improving 24-year-old, who scored 8.8 points per game for Hapoel last year, will get more playing time in this campaign and can help his side with hustle on both ends of the court. His performance for Israel at the European Championships this summer showed his worth against the very best and will give him even more confidence ahead of the new season. Last season: 2nd place, 20-7 in regular season play, lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Final Four. Best case: A repeat of last season's final. Worst case: Curry and Blalock can't get used to their new surroundings and the team misses out on the Final Four title game for the first time in three years. HAPOEL GALIL ELYON Hapoel has lost three of the keys to last season's tremendous success. Coach Oded Katash and Omri Casspi left for Maccabi Tel Aviv and offensive star Chester Simmons was snatched away by Hapoel Holon. Eli Kaneti was brought in to replace Katash and faces the almost impossible task of repeating last season's third place finish. Yogev Ohayon's superb performances at the end of the last campaign helped the side reach the Final Four and he will once more be crucial to any success achieved at Kfar Blum this season. The newly built roster will undoubtedly struggle at the start of league, especially with Kaneti choosing to bring in mostly inexperienced foreigners (average age 25). Kaneti will be hoping, however, that Doron Sheffer will be able to help the team in the experience department. The 35-year-old guard, who came out of retirement for a third time this summer to play for the team he led to the league title 15 years ago, hasn't made much of an impression yet, but will nevertheless have basketball fans watching Galil's games closely. Player to watch out for: Mike Campbell. The 32-year-old was the leading scorer in the Belgian top division last season (17.6 ppg) and will have to fill the void left by sharp-shooter Chester Simmons. Campbell scored plenty of points for the team in the State Cup last week and will be expected to continue doing so throughout the entire season. Last season: 3rd place, 15-12 in regular season play, defeated Bnei Hasharon in the third place playoff at the Final Four. Best case: Oded who? After reaching a second straight Final Four, Katash is no longer missed at Kfar Blum. Worst case: Lack of experience demotes Galil to bottom half of the table. BNEI HASHARON The Sharon club will look to build on the success of last season, when it defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv to reach the State Cup final and also progressed to the season-ending Final Four. Coach Effi Birenboim will have to manage without the amazing scoring skills of Lee Nailon, who left for a big contract in Russia, but will be confident of recording another excellent season after Meir Tapiro left Jerusalem for the Sharon. Even at 32-years of age Tapiro is still one of the best Israeli players in the BSL and gives Birenboim someone to turn too when all else breaks down. Bnei Hasharon also managed to keep the core of its foreign players from last season, with Cookie Belcher, Jason Williams, Ousmane Cisse and Julius Page all remaining at the club. Having foreigners with BSL experience will give Bnei Hasharon a significant advantage over many of the league's other teams and should ensure the team battles once more for a place in the Final Four. Player to watch out for: Ndudi Ebi. The 23-year-old Nigerian, who was selected 23rd by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2003 NBA draft, could help Bnei Hasharon fans quickly forget about Nailon. Ebi has no European experience, but impressed in his first showing for the team, scoring 27 points in 25 minutes in the side's loss in the Winner Cup two weeks ago. Last season: 4th place, 17-10 in regular season play, lost to Hapoel Galil-Elyon in the third place playoff at the Final Four. Best case: Bnei Hasharon solidifies its place as a top four team. Worst case: Birenboim can't repeat last season's success and the team fail to make the Final Four. IRONI NAHARIYA Nahariya was one of the most disappointing sides in the BSL last season, finishing in fifth position and failing to book a Final Four berth. Coach Ariel Beit-Halahmi once again has one of the best rosters in the BSL and could lose his job if he fails to guide the side to the Final Four for a second straight season. Beit-Halahmi re-signed Otis Hill and Adrian Pledger this summer, a year after dropping them from the team. Sasa Ocokoljic and Ashante Johnson complete the foreign core of the team and will both be key contributors this season. Nahariya also has on its roster some of the best Israeli players in the league. Matan Naor and Avi Sukar join Ido Kozikaro and Barak Peleg up north and give Beit-Halahmi every chance to make up for last season's failure. Player to watch out for: Avi Sukar. The 31-year-old playmaker may not put up such impressive stats (6.4 ppg and 5.8 apg last season), but he will direct the Nahariya play this season and holds the key to the side's success. Sukar, who played for Ironi two seasons ago, returns to the club after splitting last season between Kiev, Sofia and Afula/Gilboa. Last season: 5th place, 14-13 in regular season play. Best case: Beit-Halahmi makes up for last season by taking the team to the Final Four. Worst case: Last season's collapse repeats itself and the team fails to reach the Final Four once more. Hapoel Afula/Gilboa Afula/Gilboa was the surprise package in the BSL last season, finishing in sixth position after gaining promotion from the National League the previous year. Coach Avner Yaor has one of the best frontcourts at his disposal this term, after adding Ekene Ibekwa and Nate Carter to Tunji Awujobi and Jermaine Hall, who will be starting their second season with the club. Lamont Jones, Amit Ben-David and Hanan Coleman will strengthen the team's backcourt, but Afula/Gilboa will still struggle for depth in the guard positions as the season progresses. No one will be taking Afula/Gilboa lightly this season, which guarantees the team will face a far tougher time in its attempt to repeat last year's achievement. Player to watch out for: Amit Ben-David. The 29-year-old will look to build on his relative success at Nahariya last season (8.5 ppg, 3.2 apg). Afula/Gilboa's short bench will guarantee Ben-David will get plenty of chances to show that he can lead a team. Last season: 6th place, 11-16 in regular season play. Best case: Afula/Gilboa secures its BSL survival midway through the season. Worst case: The club suffers from the second season syndrome and is relegated. Ironi Ramat Gan Ramat Gan coach Robbie Belinko built the team from scratch this summer and had no choice but to sign unproven youngsters due to the club's small budget. The 33-year-old Brian Tolbert ( 15.2 ppg) joined from Rishon Lezion and will have to lead the young roster. Ramat Gan only won two more matches than the relegated Maccabi Givat Shmuel last season and as things stand will likely find itself once more fighting for its top division life. Belinko will need to get the team to play better than the sum of its parts or National League basketball awaits the small club. Player to watch out for: Elishay Kadir. The 19-year-old homegrown talent will likely start for the team this season and finally get the chance to develop his massive potential. Kadir scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Ramat Gan's State Cup game last week and could put up similar stats throughout the season. Last season: 7th place, 9-18 in regular season play. Best case: Ramat Gan escapes relegation in the last week of the season. Worst case: One word. Relegation. Maccabi Rishon Lezion Rishon was fortunate not to get relegated last season and built a strong roster this summer with the hope of steering away from the bottom of the table. Cedric Banks and Juan Mendez (15.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg at Ironi Nahariya last season) will team-up with Bryant Markson (13.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Jerel Blassingame (16.3 ppg) to give the club four quality foreigners. Coach Adi Azulai, who joined the team midway through last season, has plenty of BSL experience and if his team plays to its potential it could well be the black horse of the coming season. Player to watch out for: Oded Sha'ashoua. The 25-year-old struggled as Rishon's starting point guard last season (6.3 ppg, 1.7 apg), but will nevertheless guide the team for a second straight year. Sha'ashoua will need to distribute the ball wisely between the team's foreigners and can ensure Rishon has a much better campaign this season by finally showing why he's gotten so much credit from his coach. Last season: 8th place, 9-18 in regular season play. Best case: Goes down fighting in the semis of the Final Four Worst case: Rishon avoids relegation, but also comes nowhere near Final Four qualification. IRONI ASHKELON At the start of September Ashkelon was still without a coach or players. The team's owners had threatened to pull the plug on the club in the summer, but eventually decided to keep Ashkleon afloat for another season. The team's first move was to sign Ofer Berkovitch as coach and he quickly assembled his roster for the coming season. Cory Carr, who starred for the team in 2005, returned to Ashkelon and will have a pivotal role in the side once again. Wayne Wallace (7.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), who joined the side from Maccabi Givat Shmuel, will be one of the better shot blockers in the league this season. Former Israel captain Pappi Turgeman came out of his two year retirement to help Ashkelon out, but, like his team, is bound to struggle at the beginning of the season. Player to watch out for: Yariv Yatzkan. The 32-year-old has been one of the best scorers in Israeli basketball over the last decade. After spending last season in the French second division Yatzkan chose to return home and he will have every opportunity to show his worth at Ashkelon in this campaign. Last season: 9th place, 8-19 in regular season play. Best case: Finishes in ninth position once more. Worst case: Finishes one place lower than it did last season. HAPOEL HOLON The National League champion has invested heavily to make sure it doesn't make an immediate return to the second division. Eric Campbell, P.J Tucker, Chester Simmons and Malik Dixon are all top quality players and should ensure Holon has no trouble finishing in the top half of the standings. The naturalized Chris Watson and Ryan Lexer and Israeli internationals Moran Rot and Amit Tamir will mostly contribute off the bench, but are of a level that they could well start for the team. Guards Guni Izraeli and Avishai Gordon are both coming off excellent seasons at Afula/Gilboa and Galil respectively and give coach and club owner Miki Dorsman a deep roster that could well compete for a Final Four berth. Player to watch out for: Chester Simmons. The swingman joined Galil midway through last season and starred in the team's excellent finish to the campaign. The 25-year-old scored 19.2 ppg last year and proved that he's lethal from every point on the floor. Last season: National League champion. Best case: Loses to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Final Four semifinal. Worst case: Holon finishes half-way down the table.

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