maccabi TA 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Three more stops were added to Maccabi Tel Aviv's road to the Final Four on Monday as the two-time defending Euroleague champs were drawn into Group E of the Top 16 together with Real Madrid, Climamio Bologna and Ulker Istanbul.
Maccabi will open on the road against the Spanish champs next Thursday and play its first home game on March 2 against Ulker.
The top two teams in each of the four groups will advance to the best-of-three quarterfinals for a chance to play for a spot at the Final Four in Prague. The group winner will play the Group D runner-up in the quarters and the runner-up will face the Group D winner.
Maccabi is a clear favorite to move on to the next round, although each of the teams is capable of surprising.
"We have a very balanced group," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said upon learning of his next opponents. "I don't believe one team will be able to finish with a perfect record.
"It's a very interesting group... Four or five wins will be enough to make it to the quarterfinals," he said.
"It's still a long, hard road to the Final Four. Ulker is better than the results they have made so far. They suffered some injuries and I believe they will recover now and play better. Both Real and Climamio have very good coaches, and good coaches make good teams."
Bologna is coached by Jasmin Repesa and Real by Bozidar Maljkovic.
The Italian champs, who finished the regular season as the Group A runners-up with a 10-4 record, do not have fond memories of their last visit to Tel Aviv. Maccabi crushed Bologna 118-74 in the 2004 Euroleague final.
The team has undergone several changes since and is now led by teenage guard Marco Belinelli (14 points per game), Slovenian scorer Sani Becirovic (11 ppg), 2.16-meter center Dalibor Bagaric and 2005 Euroleague Young Player of the Year Erazem Lorbek. Climamio also features fomer Bnei Herzliya guard Nate Green.
"We will face Maccabi for the first time after that Euroleague title game in 2004," Repesa told reporters. "We don't forget they are two-time defending champions but, also, the team of the city where we reached our first Euroleague final.
"Coming back to Tel Aviv will be an important feeling. We will try to start again on the court where our three youngest players [Stefano] Mancinelli, Belinelli and Lorbek have lived a big experience. Now, they're important players for us."
Real, the winningest European club of all time, defeated Maccabi in the 1980 European final. Its strength is in its backcourt, where Louis Bullock (16.3 ppg) and Igor Rakocevic (15.8 ppg.) make up the only teammates to both appear among the league's top 10 scorers. The team's top inside player is Felipe Reyes (10.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg), while the X-factor is NBA prospect Mickael Gelabale.
Ulker, coached by Ergin Ataman, is led by rebounding king Mirsad Turkcan (11.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg), scoring threat Ibrahim Kutluay (12.5 ppg) and a pair of athletic Americans in big man Marcus Haislip (12.4 ppg) and swingman Jeff Trepignair (11.3 ppg, 3.5 spg), who set a Euroleague record this season with 11 steals in one game.
"I can say that we had a good draw," an optimistic Ataman said. "I think all teams have the same chance for the next stage. Of course, our target will be to move towards the quarterfinals."
This will be the third year in a row that Maccabi faces Ulker in the Top 16. Last year the yellow-and-blue coasted to a pair of easy wins, 90-59 at home and 83-67 on the road.
Maccabi was spared an exciting, although potentially awkward meeting with former coach David Blatt and Benetton Treviso, which went into Group G.
The other groups drawn were as follows: Group D: Unicaja Malaga, Zalgiris Kaunas, Winterthur Barcelona, Olympiacos Piraeus Group F: Tau Vitoria, CSKA Moscow, Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius, GHP Bamberg Group G: Panathinaikos, Efes Pilsen, Benetton Treviso, Cibona Zagreb.