Maccabi Tel Aviv's pursuit of a third straight Euroleague title will reach its climax in Prague this weekend where the yellow-and-blue will play in their sixth Final Four in the last seven years.
Tel Aviv's first obstacle comes in the form of Spanish club Tau Vitoria on Friday evening. The semifinal will be a rematch of last years final which Maccabi won 90-78.
Tel Aviv, which is attempting to win its sixth European title, has the chance to join Split (89-91) [See page 11 for Split tribute] and ASK Riga (58-60) as the only teams ever to win three European championships in a row.
Despite rallying to win both its regular season and Top 16 groups and then surviving a three-game series against Olympiacos, Maccabi has had a rollercoaster of a season in which it has largely relied on character and toughness rather then free flowing and beautiful basketball as in the past.
"This season had been much more difficult then the previous two", Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said in a press conference on Thursday in Prague. "It's a great feeling to stand here and know that we have achieved the goal we set out for ourselves at the start of the season." Gershon's men will face a revamped Tau team which is missing several notable names from last year's roster.
Coach Dusko Ivanovic left the team in the summer and signed for Barcelona after leading Tau to a league championship and two cups.
Arvydas Macijauskas and Jose Calderon followed suit, leaving Tau for NBA teams New Orleans Hornets and Toronto Raptors respectively.
Spanish coach Pedro Martinez replaced Ivanovic as coach, but was dismissed by the club in November after a poor league run.
Velimir Perasovic, who only began his coaching career last season, replaced the Spaniard and stabilized the team, eventually guiding Tau to its second straight Final Four.
Perasovic was a part of all three of Split's European winning teams and now stands in Maccabi's way of repeating the Croatians achievement.
"For me, there is a double motivation in Prague," Perasovic said earlier in the week.
"Not to let Maccabi match Split with three consecutive titles. But that is more anecdotal. The most important challenge is that you want to beat a great team when it counts most."
Tau won its regular season group and finished second in Group F of the Top 16, trailing only another Final Four team, CSKA Moscow. The Spaniards defied the odds in the quarterfinals, defeating Panathinaikos in Game 3 of the three-game playoff in front of 18,000 fans in Athens.
Vitoria has been struggling with its form recently, losing two of its last three league games since beating Panathinaikos.
Tau has added several players to this year's roster, but the most surprising contribution has come from an old face, guard Pablo Prigioni.
The Argentinean has led the Euroleague in assists (6.4 per game) and has stepped in for Calderon, becoming the teamsâ€š playmaker.
The responsibility for slowing down Prigioni and disrupting Tau's game will rest on the shoulders of Derrick Sharp and Will Solomon.
Sharp is Maccabiâ€šs captain and is the only player to have taken part in all of his teams recent Final Fours.
"Tau may have an extra incentive to beat us, but we do to. Winning is our incentive," said Sharp on Thursday.
Despite leading Tel Aviv in scoring, Solomon has had an unsettled season and has been unable to fulfill the expectations and match the play of his predecessor Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Tau may have a slight advantage in numbers in the front court but Maccabi more then matches the Spaniards in the talent department.
Tel Aviv's main worry will be forward Luis Scola. The Argentinean leads his team in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.4 rebounds per game) and on his day is unstoppable.
"Tau has grown up year after year, to become a major team," Scola said on Thursday. "Last year, we could only finish second. I hope this can be our year to win the European championship."
Scola will have plenty of help inside, with NBA prospect Tiago Splitter (9.8 PPG and 4.6 RPG) stepping up this season as a fulltime starter.
Kornel David (9 PPG and 4.6 RPG) and rarely used sub Predrag Drobnjak (4.7 PPG and 2.5 RPG) are both very experienced players who can help their team if given the chance.
Tau's big men will battle in the paint against Nikola Vujcic, Maceo Baston, Jamie Arnold and Yaniv Green, with the winners of that clash giving their team a huge advantage.
Vujcic spoke of the excitement ahead of the Final Four in Thursday's training session and said, "I remember that before my first Final Four, I couldn't sleep for three days before the game. At my second one, I couldn't sleep the day before, but now I can sleep well.
"We come here with experience, which is one of our advantages. If we play like we played in the last two years in the Final Four, we could definitely win."
Tel Aviv will need to be wary of Serkan Erdogan (10.4 PPG), Travis Hansen (10.8 PPG) and Casey Jacobsen (9.7 PPG) who are all capable of having a big night and could end up making the difference betweens the teams.
The real difference maker will probably be once again Anthony Parker. The American gives his all on both sides of the court and as long as Maccabi has him on its side the yellow-and-blue are favorites against any team.
Maccabi will be cheered on by an estimated 9,000 fans from Israel and around the world. "I haven't seen fans anywhere around Europe like Maccabi Tel Aviv fans," Solomon commented on Thursday. "They are excellent fans who support us 100 percent - from the moment we come on the floor to the time we leave it."
A host of NBA scouts and executives will attend the Final Four including, commissioner David Stern, New York Knicks president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas and Chris Mullin of the Golden State Worriers.
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