The dawn of a bright new season for Mac TA

Yellow-and-blue has high hopes of Euroleague success, beats Rishon in Winner Cup quarters

 ROMAN SORKIN (front) made his Maccabi Tel Aviv debut on Wednesday night after coming over from Maccabi Haifa. The forward had six points as the yellow-and-blue beat Maccabi Rishon Lezion 87-68 in the Winner Cup quarterfinals. (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
ROMAN SORKIN (front) made his Maccabi Tel Aviv debut on Wednesday night after coming over from Maccabi Haifa. The forward had six points as the yellow-and-blue beat Maccabi Rishon Lezion 87-68 in the Winner Cup quarterfinals.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)

Maccabi Tel Aviv has had quite a challenging month to say the least.

Just as the yellow-and-blue was about to open up training camp in preparation for the new season, COVID-19 reared its ugly head as five players and a number of staff members came down with the virus.

The coronavirus put head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s original plans on ice, one which had included playing in three high-level preseason tournaments with Euroleague-level clubs to get the campaign off on the right foot as the Israeli side readies for its opening Euroleague tilt on September 30 against Bayern Munich.

But that was not to be as players were placed in quarantine and practices for the full squad only began earlier this week, well behind the rest of the Israeli league teams and certainly in a deep hole compared to other continental teams that it will soon face.

However, almost all seemed to be right when Maccabi tipped-off against Maccabi Rishon Lezion on Wednesday night in their Winner Cup quarterfinal clash. The yellow-and-blue dominated the wine city squad and went on to win 87-68 as it advanced to the semifinals, where it will play Hapoel Jerusalem on Friday afternoon in an early-season Israeli classico.

While winning in these preseason clashes are always good for morale, the games itself and the opportunity to get into game shape in what Sfairopoulos is looking for as the team is going to be expected to do better than it did last season in Euroleague play when it finished 14-20, way outside of the playoff picture.

“I am starting my fourth season at Maccabi, and I am very pleased about it,” said Sfairopoulos. “I emphasize this because sometimes you have something valuable in your pocket, but you forget its value. For me, the value of being the head coach of Maccabi always remained high and I will do my best to bring glory to our club.

“We did not start the season as planned, but I do not want to dwell on all the things that happened or look for excuses. We are Maccabi, and we will fight every game like we always do, no matter the circumstances.”

Maccabi made a number of high profile signings this offseason, including Derrick Williams, James Nunnally, Jalen Reynolds along with Israeli rising star Iftach Ziv.

“We are very happy to start the new season and I want to thank the effort from management to rebuild the team and bring in new blood to Maccabi,” continued the Greek bench-boss. “I am very content as to how we built the team and strengthened the roster. I want to say less and work harder on the court and adjust to the new way of playing.”

The coach also went on to talk about some of the changes in the roster compared to prior years.

“For sure the style of our play will be adjusted to the talent and abilities of each player. We will just adjust tactically accordingly. There is no question that we have quality and we have to find chemistry to reach our goal. We need to build this and it’s not easy to create a solid squad.”

The club also brought back Jake Cohen, who spent last season in Spain, and signed guard Keenan Evans, who starred for Hapoel Haifa this past year, as well as Ronan Sorkin, who also played in the Carmel for Maccabi Haifa. However, the club lost arguably its most promising Israeli in Yovel Zoosman, who decided to sign with ALBA Berlin.

“This is part of the sports and everybody is free to decide what is best for him,” Sfairopoulos said. “It’s true that when I came to Maccabi I gave [Zoosman] a different role but he decided to leave. There are no hard feelings.”

In addition to Maccabi not being able to hold onto Zoosman, there are number of leading Israelis who are also not currently with the club –  whether it’s Deni Avdija, who is playing in the NBA, Yam Madar, who is now playing with Partizan Belgrade, as well as Tomer Ginat and others. This is a challenge for Maccabi, explained general manager Nikola Vujcic, as the club is always in the business of having the best Sabras available.

“The philosophy is to always have the best Israeli players and some players we want to keep but they have different goals,” said Vujcic. “We have established an academy and we have players who are developing and some who have left will come back. We have to continue to develop the players to our standards and it’s hard to produce high-level players. There is a lack of practice facilities and requirements and we are doing our best to manage this. All of the Israeli players that are up to Maccabi standards will be here.”

Having the fans back at Yad Eliyahu is something the GM views as critical for the club this season.

“Winning is the goal every year. With the fans back we will look at how we can win games at home and we can always compete with the Maccabi spirit as we have done through history. I am happy as to how we built the team for this season. We had to take a step back last year with the budget due to COVID and this year we made the improvements for the team. This year the Euroleague will be very competitive and we are intent on making the step up.”

Sfairopoulos also addressed the supporters who will return to the arena to open up the new Euroleague campaign.

“I want to thank all the fans who support us, buying season tickets and showing presence at the arena. We want to play in front of them again and absorb the great energies they give us in good and bad moments. We love them and miss them very much.”

Finally, legendary Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Shimon Mizrachi also looked ahead to the very familiar challenges that the defending Israeli league champion will face.

“Our goals have never changed – to win the local titles and to get to the latter stages of the Euroleague. Due to the coronavirus we didn’t get to where we needed to be and we lost some games by a few points last season. This year, we have over 9,000 season ticket holders and we are hopeful that there will be no issues as the fans will play a factor for the success of our team.”