Yellow-and-blue begins back-to-back quest

New-look Mac TA faces Limoges in Euroleague opener with the memories of last season’s title still fresh.

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Sofoklis Schortsanitis (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Sofoklis Schortsanitis
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
With a new head coach, five new players, but with Sofoklis Schortsanitis back in the fold, Maccabi Tel Aviv begins its Euroleague title defense at Nokia Arena on Thursday night.
Five months after lifting its sixth European title with a memorable overtime victory over Real Madrid in the final, the yellow-and-blue gets a new regular season campaign underway when it hosts Limoges of France.
Despite the departure of head coach David Blatt for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the exit of star guards Tyrese Rice and Ricky Hickman combined with the retirement of legendary shooter David Blu, Maccabi should encounter little trouble against Limoges.
In fact, Maccabi, guided by new head coach Guy Goodes and his assistant Pini Gershon, is expected to cruise to the Top 16 from a group which also includes the strong CSKA Moscow, as well as Unicaja Malaga, Alba Berlin and Cedevita Zagreb.
The competition format is unchanged from recent seasons. At the end of the regular season, which runs until December 19, the top four teams from each group will continue on to the Top 16, while the remaining eight squads will join the second phase of the Eurocup.
After the Top 16, between December 30 and April 10, the top halves of the two eight-team groups move on to the playoffs, four best-of-five series scheduled between April 14 and 28. Those series winners will meet with the title at stake at the 2015 Final Four in Madrid from May 14 to 17.
Maccabi and Limoges have squared off 16 times over the years in the Euroleague, but this will be their first meeting since November 1997.
Limoges was crowned European champion in 1993, but is competing in the Euroleague for the first time since 1998 after claiming its first French championship in 14 years last season.
After a rough preseason, which included a 17-day tour in South and North America during which the team won just one of four games, Maccabi got its BSL campaign off to a winning start with a comfortable 81-69 victory at Ironi Ness Ziona on Sunday.
Greek center Schortsanitis missed Maccabi’s entire pre-season and didn’t take part in its BSL opener after failing his medical earlier in the summer.
However, he rejoined the team in training over the weekend and will be available to play on Thursday after taking care of his high blood pressure, losing weight and undergoing surgery to treat glaucoma in his eye.
His return will come as a welcome boost for Maccabi, which had struggled under the baskets in his absence despite the signing of Aleks Maric to a three-month contract.
While the team’s results in the preseason may not have been as good as expected, there were several encouraging signs for the yellow-and-blue.
Jeremy Pargo, who is back with the team after three years, seems more than capable to fill Tyrese Rice’s shoes, with Brian Randle also looking ready for European basketball’s premier club competition after spending almost all of his professional career in the Israeli league.
Pargo and Yogev Ohayon will be the team’s point guards, with Marquez Haynes and Sylven Landesberg, who is set to receive a larger role this season, to share duties at shooting guard while also playing at small forward.
Devin Smith is set to be the team’s starting small forward once more, with Nate Linhart to help from the bench, while Randle and Guy Pnini will play as power forwards. Randle can also play as center, although Sofo, Alex Tyus and Jake Cohen, who was on loan last season, are supposed to be the team’s main big men.
“It feels good to finally get the season underway,” said Smith after the win over Ness Ziona. “Because of the tour in America we didn’t have as long as usual to prepare for the game but we played well. I sometimes think about what happened last season, but that isn’t something which we have thought about much as a team.”