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"If I don't win three Euroleague titles in a row, it's as if I haven't done anything," Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon boldly declared in September when his team opened practice.
Last year, Maccabi became the first team to repeat as European champs since the Jugoplastika Split dynasty. That team won three in a row from 1989-1991, knocking off Maccabi in the final for the first of its titles.
Maccabi will begin what it hopes will be the road to the 2006 Final Four at Sakza Arena in Prague when it hosts Polish champion Prokom Trefl Sopot at the refurbished Nokia Arena.
While keeping the core of its back-to-back title teams intact, Maccabi was forced to make one major change, at the point guard position, when last season's Final Four MVP, Sarunas Jasikevicius, decided to take his show overseas to the Indiana Pacers of the NBA. Maccabi didn't wait long before signing a replacement, and an interesting one at that, Will Solomon, who first made headlines in Israel two years ago when he led Hapoel Jerusalem to its first European title in the ULEB Cup.
The team also made other changes, bidding farewell to captain Gur Shelef, big man Deon Thomas and forward Nestoras Kommatos, and loaning talented young guard Yotam Halperin to Olimpija Ljubljana. In their stead arrived forward Sharon Shason, sweet-shooting New Zealander Kirk Penney and big Jamie Arnold, while Derrick Sharp, with the club since 1996, was named captain.
Gershon also needed to make a change to the coaching staff as top assistant Ya'acov Geno left and Dan Shamir was promoted in his place.
Now the season opens to see if that will be enough.
The Euroleague is stronger than ever, and according to league CEO Jordi Bertomeu has 10-12 teams with legitimate chances of reaching the Final Four. The preseason favorites include last year's finalist, Tau Vitoria, which signed three NBA caliber players in center Predrag Drobjnak, forward Casey Jacobsen and guard Roko-Leni Ukic to go with existing stars Luis Scola, Kornell David and Tiago Splitter; CSKA Moscow, which added David Vanterpool, Trajan Langdon and Matjaz Smodis to last season's talented cast; and Barcelona, which upgraded with center Denis Marconato, forward Mikalis Kakiouzis, and guards Gianluca Basile, Bootsy Thornton and Shammond Williams.
Barcelona is the first of those teams that Maccabi will face in mid-December, but there will no doubt be some challenges before that, perhaps as early as next week at Olympiacos. However, Thursday's game against Sopot shouldn't be considered a tough game, even if for some reason the Poles manage to keep it close.
Last year Prokom proved that its team defense can shake up better teams as it began the season with two road wins and eventually qualified for the Top 16. But teams eventually found ways to get the best of Prokom, whose talent level was and still is below average in the competition.
Some of its players should be familiar to fans of Israeli hoops. Point guard Tomas Pacesas played for Maccabi Rishon early in his career and shooting guard Christian Dalmau was a key force for Hapoel Galil-Golan last season. Additionally there are several holdovers from the side that lost to Hapoel Jerusalem in the ULEB Cup playoffs two seasons ago, including star forward Goran Jagodnik, big Tomas Masiulis and Filip Dylewicz. Perhaps coach Eugeniusz Kijewski's biggest off-season signing was veteran Danish center Michael Andersen, who has experience at the highest levels from his days with AEK Athens, Peristeri and Virtus Bologna.
Prokom is coming off a shock 92-78 home loss earlier this week in domestic action to relative unknowns Turow Zgorzelec. Dalmau led Sopot with 25 points.
Kijewski doesn't sound overly confident of his team's chances. "It's very tough to start the season with an away game with Maccabi. Everybody realizes how strong this team is, how tough a task is before us," he told the Euroleague Web site. "We'll try to play the best game we can. We prepared some ideas, but it's always much easier to say than to do. Maccabi is a champion with a lot of great names. I think that particularly their starting lineup is very strong. Of course, the backup players are also very good, but the first five are just great."
Pacesas, who has been to the arena before, knows what to expect. "We cannot choose our opponents, so if we have to face Maccabi at the beginning, we have to fight with them. Of course, it's going to be very tough to beat them away, there will be an [arena] full of fanatic fans who are expecting a great game from their team, especially after Maccabi beat Toronto [in a preseason exhibition last month].
"We are preparing our tactics, but in my opinion, we also have to be well-prepared mentally," Pacesas said. "We have to control the tempo of the game. We cannot let them find their rhythm, because then we'll be in trouble. Everybody knows that Maccabi likes to play fast, so we have to control them."
Maccabi began training at its arena only on Monday night and the game will be the first at home for the new players. That seems to be the only thing worrying Gershon.
"It's hard to believe the Polish team can surprise us at home because these kind of games are usually up to us," he said. "Nokia Arena is still under construction. I think for some of our players there is no home feeling at the moment, [so] maybe it's better we face Sopot and not a stronger team."
But the returnees have no doubt about the boost that playing at home can give the team.
"I am excited to start a new season in the newly decorated Nokia Arena," starting power forward Maceo Baston said. "This is our teritory, the place where we feel at our best. Prokom Sopot is considered to be an easy opponent, but we have already learned that every team that plays against us gives more than 100 percent as if it is the game of the year, so we must be prepared.
"I think we are improving each and every day. So far we are very pleased with our preseason results and domestic league games. It's going to be a very hot atmosphere on Thursday. We talk about it to the new players, but they must experience it on their own in order to understand."
Maccabi is expected to play with the same starting five it did last season, with Solomon instead of Saras. Nikola Vujcic will team with Baston up front, while Tal Burstein and Euroleague MVP Anthony Parker round out the lineup.
Prokom may try to take Parker, who led Maccabi last year with 18 points per contest, out of the game with its physical swarming defense, but it's unlikely that it will have an answer for Vujcic or Solomon.
The big Croatian's savvy in the paint should allow him to get around Andersen, while his height will make it easy against the rest of the Prokom defenders.
Solomon is among the quickest guards in Europe and his speed helped him total 52 points in two games against Prokom when with Jerusalem.
Maccabi's schedule will slowly get more difficult. Next week it visits Olympiacos, in Week 4 it travels to play Efes Pilsen in Istanbul and in Week 7 it heads to Barcelona.
The Euroleague format is the same as last year. Three groups of eight teams will play a 14-game regular season through February, at the end of which 16 teams - the top five from each group and the best sixth place finisher - move on to the Top 16.
Teams' records will not carry over from the regular season, however their seedings from the group stage will be used to determine the new groups. In the Top 16, teams will by divided into four groups of four and will play the other three teams in their group twice - each team home and away.
The top teams from that stage advance to a best-of-three quarterfinal series for a berth in Prague.
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