Basketball: Maccabi to face ex-stars Halperin, Vujcic

Olympiacos to play Birenboim's team in Euroleague first round next season.

Maccabi TA 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
Maccabi TA 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
Yotam Halperin and Nikola Vujcic will be back in Tel Aviv just six months after leaving the Nokia Arena after their new team Olympiacos was drawn in the same group as Maccabi Tel Aviv in the draw for the Euroleague regular season in Berlin on Tuesday. Maccabi will host Olympiacos on January 8, 2009, and will visit Athens on November 13. Also with Maccabi in Group B are: Unicaja Malaga, Cibona Zagreb, Le Mans and Avellino. Tel Aviv will begin its Euroleague campaign in Croatia against Cibona on October 23. "It was obvious to me that this would happen," said Vujcic, who became a fan favorite in his six seasons at Maccabi. "I didn't need the draw to know I would play Maccabi. I'm not crazy about the idea of coming back to the Nokia Arena to face Maccabi, but it will undoubtedly be a very special occasion." In the Eurocup draw, which was also made in Berlin on Tuesday, Bnei Hasharon was handed a tough group in its debut season in the competition, formerly known as the ULEB Cup. Moshe Weinkrantz's team will play Aris Thessaloniki of Greece, Turk Telecom and a qualifier in Group D. Hapoel Jerusalem will likely face an extremely difficult challenge in the second qualifying round after being drawn to face the winner of the first qualifying round tie between Russian powerhouse Unics Kazan and Czarni Slupsk of Poland. "This is the toughest draw we could have received," Jerusalem coach Guy Goodes said. "Kazan is one of the strongest teams in the competition. They regarded their fourth place finish in the Russian league last season as a failure and will build an even stronger team for the coming campaign." If Hapoel advances to the group stage it will face David Blatt's Dynamo Moscow, Barons of Latvia and Lukoil Akademik Sofia. Failure to progress past the qualifying round will send Jerusalem into Europe's third tier-event, the EuroChallenge. Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi, who represented the club in Berlin, labeled the team's draw as "very tough", just as he does every year regardless of the identity of the opponents. "I think that our group is very tough, but on the other hand it is very attractive because with Olympiacos we have Nikola Vujcic and Yotam Halperin that played with us and will now come back with their new team. It will be a very interesting winter," Mizrahi said. "Teams like Olympiacos or Unicaja will be tough, of course, but I think we will be able to make it to the Top 16. We have to take it step by step. We have to get to the Top 16 first and then we will see." The best four teams from each of the round robin groups will advance to the Top 16 in which there will be four groups of four teams. The top two teams from each group will progress to the best-of-five quarterfinal playoffs, with the four series winners progressing to the Final Four in Berlin in May. The most dangerous opponent in Maccabi's group is undoubtedly Olympiacos. The Greek giant, which was kept out of the Final Four last season by eventual champion CSKA Moscow, has gone on a spending spree this summer, signing former Euroleague MVP Theo Papaloukas and promising big man Zoran Erceg, as well as Vujcic and Halperin. "You can never say that a draw is good or bad, because it is something that will be decided at the end," Olympiacos coach Panagiotis Giannakis said. "We will play against experienced teams, but also against young ones. All the teams want to win and they will try hard to achieve their goals and we respect them a lot." Tel Aviv will be almost equally wary of Malaga, which missed out on the quarterfinal playoffs on a tiebreaker last season. The Spaniards, who reached the Final Four in 2007, have held on to many of their key players, including Berni Rodriguez and Marcus Haislip, and will be hoping to repeat their 23-point demolition of Maccabi in the same stage of the competition last season. Cibona Zagreb and Le Mans were also in Maccabi's round robin group last season and the yellow-and-blue will be confident of recording victories home and away against the Croats and Frenchmen for a second straight campaign. Avellino, which reached the Italian league semifinals last season, will be playing in European competition for the first time in its history and is expected to struggle. "It's not an easy draw," said new Maccabi coach Effi Birenboim, who will be coaching in the Euroleague for the first time in his career. "We're still building our team for next season. I promise we'll be ready for the challenge and we'll build the strongest team possible to compete in this strong Euroleague group. It's going to be special to play against Yotam and Nikola, but we have to think about ourselves and how to win each game."