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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon was pleased with the Euroleague Top 16 group his team was handed in Monday's draw.
Tel Aviv faces Barcelona, Real Madrid and Alba Berlin between January 28 and March 12, with the two top teams from the group advancing to the Euroleague playoffs for a best-of-five quarterfinal series.
"The draw could have been better, but could have also been worse," Gershon said. "Nobody can say which two teams will qualify, and I'm more than hopeful we'll be among them.
"It's impossible to underestimate Barcelona after they crushed Panathinaikos and Siena in the regular season. Real won in Moscow and finished second in a very tough group, so it's going to be anything but easy with them. Alba is a dangerous team from the fourth seed. They are hosting the Final Four and I know, from personal experience, that every team that hosts the big event gives more than usual to be there."
Barcelona finished on top of Group B in the regular season with a 9-1 record, losing only to Siena on the road.
The team's deep roster is led by Spain's national team star Juan Carlos Navarro (13.6 ppg, 3.8 apg), with David Andersen (11.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Ersan Ilyasova (10.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) adding two more key contributors on a team in which nine players get between 15 and 26 minutes of playing time per game.
"We have been placed in a tough, complicated group, but we must accept the draw results," Barcelona general manager Joan Creus said.
"The fact that we entered the Top 16 with the best regular season record must give us hope for the upcoming games."
Real Madrid ended Group D with a 6-4 record and is slightly weaker than Barca, but also boasts an impressive roster.
Felipe Reyes (13 ppg, 6.1 rpg) may be the side's only player to average double-figures, however Jeremiah Massey, Louis Bullock, Alex Mumbru and Raul Lopez give coach Joan Plaza plenty of options.
"There are no easy opponents in the draw," Plaza said. "We must work hard, be solid at home, try to get tiebreakers and steal a road win."
Alba Berlin, which visits the Nokia Arena in Maccabi's group opener on January 29, finished fourth in Group C with a 4-6 record and is hoping to reach the Final Four, which will be hosted in the German capital.
The team, however, has the weakest roster in its Top 16 group, with Immanuel McElroy the side's unquestionable star, leading Alba in points (13.6 ppg) and minutes played (35 mpg).
"Being in the Top 16 of the Euroleague is a great opportunity to play the biggest names of European basketball and I think that's what we got in this draw," said Alba coach Luka Pavicevic, who used to play for Hapoel Nahariya.
"We will play games against the biggest teams of professional European basketball. This was our goal from the start and we competed hard to give our fans the opportunity to see us play against great teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Maccabi Tel Aviv."
Like Gershon, Maccabi forward Omri Casspi also believes the team could have done much worse in the draw and is confident Tel Aviv will advance to the last eight of European basketball's premier competition.
"It's a tough draw but we see it as a great challenge. If we qualify, we'll prove we're among the best teams in Europe. We expect to make it," Casspi said. "In this group every team can beat the other, and we'll have to come 100 percent ready every night."
Also on Monday, Maccabi released Jason Williams, who will play for Ironi Nahariya for the rest of the season.
Williams, who averaged 4.9 points in eight BSL games and 3.3 points in six Euroleague encounters, is the fourth player Maccabi has released this season, joining Rodney White, Esteban Batista and Elton Brown.