BSL season opens with rematch of championship game

Major offseason changes for defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv and hopeful Hapoel Jerusalem.

lior eliyahu 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
lior eliyahu 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The 2006/07 league season will get underway Sunday night in the biggest possible way. Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Hapoel Jerusalem at Nokia Arena in Matchday 1, with both sides hoping to recover from loses in European competitions last week. One club that will not be starting its season on Sunday night is Hapoel Tel Aviv. Hapoel, which finished eighth last season, chose to forfeit its place in the BSL after failing to raise the minimum budget and will play in the second-tier National League instead. This season will also see the introduction of the "Russian rule," which states that at any given time, two Israeli players must be on court for each team and the coaches will need to take this into consideration with every substitution they make. MACCABI TEL AVIV The BSL introduced the Final Four format last year with the hope of injecting some interest into the league. However, Maccabi cruised to another championship by crushing Hapoel Jerusalem by 30 points in the final to take its 13th championship in a row and 36th in the last 37 years. Can this season be any different from the last 13? Possibly. Tel Aviv has transformed its team over the summer and is so far experiencing difficulties in finding the form of recent seasons. New coach Neven Spahija is still getting used to his new surroundings and Rodney Buford and Noel Felix will never equal the contributions the team got from Anthony Parker and Maceo Baston, who left for the NBA. The single-elimination Final Four format does allow other teams to dream of snatching a championship and if the new Maccabi fails to gel in the near future, the pressure will mount and we may just have a new champion at season's end. Player to watch out for: Lior Eliyahu. The 21-year-old, who was selected with the 44th pick at the NBA Draft over the summer, has so far adapted well to life at Maccabi. The new Russian rule will guarantee Eliyahu plenty of playing time in the league and Maccabi fans will be in for a treat this season watching Israel's most talented basketball player. Last season: First place (26-4) in the regular season, winners of the Final Four. Best case: Spahija and Will Bynum sign a new multi-year contract at the end of the season after the new Maccabi dynasty cruises to another championship. Worst case: Spahija coaches his last game at Maccabi in the Final Four loss to Hapoel Jerusalem. HAPOEL JERUSALEM Jerusalem has gone 10 years without winning a title in Israel and over the summer, the team decided to turn to its bitter rival for the man it hopes will finally bring another domestic title to the capital. As a Maccabi assistant coach the last three seasons, Dan Shamir learned the art of coaching from Israel's best and even more importantly, acquired the habit of winning from the yellow-and-blue. Shamir has replaced almost half of the squad, bringing in five new players, but has also held on to several key players. Timmy Bowers, who was one of the top scorers in the BSL last season at Maccabi Givat Shmuel, joined the team and together with Mario Austin, who remained with the club for a second straight season, will give Jerusalem two unstoppable offensive weapons. Hapoel chose to put its faith in a rookie coach and the decision could very well prove to be a risky gamble. On the one hand, success for the 31-year-old just might put Shamir on course to becoming the next great Israeli coach, but on the other hand, the pressure of coaching in Jerusalem may prove to be too much for Shamir. Player to watch out for: Jurica Golemac. The Slovenian/Croatian forward joins Jerusalem from Russia's Ural Great, where he averaged 12.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. The versatile 29-year-old is a pain to defend and as long as he performs consistently, Hapoel is guaranteed an important contribution on the offensive end. Last season: Second place (23-7) in the regular season, lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Final Four. Best case: The 10-year title drought in Israel comes to an end. Worst case: A loss in the Final Four semis leaves Shamir looking for a new job. MACCABI RISHON LEZION After a successful season under Guy Goodes which ended in a win in the third-place game at the BSL Final Four, Rishon was forced to look for a replacement after its coach left to be the assistant at Maccabi Tel Aviv. Rishon decided to promote assistant Gilad Katz, who has never guided a team in the BSL before, to the head coaching position. Katz faces high expectations after the club's play last season. Rishon not only won games last year, but also did it with style that hasn't been seen in the city for many years. Brian Tolbert, who averaged 17.4 points last season, joined from Elitzur Ashkelon and together with Ryan Sydney, who will start his second season on the team, could prove that last season was not a fluke. Player to watch out for: Reggie Moore. The 25-year-old forward was the MVP of the Portuguese league last year and also won the scoring title with 22.2 points per game for Belenses. Moore will be a constant nuisance for defenses and is an early contender for the scoring title in Israel. Last season: Third place (17-13), defeated Ironi Nahariya in the third-place game at the Final Four. Best case: Goes down fighting in the semis of the Final Four. Worst case: Goodes's shoes prove to be bigger than expected and Rishon spends the entire season in the middle of the standings. IRONI NAHARIYA There will be a new face this season on the Nahariya sideline for the first time in six years. Ariel Bet-Halahmi replaced Avi Ashkenazi and has built a new team in the north. Bet-Halahmi kept the Israeli core of the club, which includes Amit Ben-David and Barak Peleg. However, he chose to replace all four of the teams foreigners. The talented John Gilchrist, who averaged 13.2 points and 4.9 rebounds last season at Rishon, joined the team and will continue to develop under the watchful eye of the new coach. Nahariya also managed to pull off the double signing of Israelis Ido Kozikaro and Raviv Limonad, which gave the team the best group of local players outside Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Player to watch out for: Juan Mendez. The 25-year-old forward averaged 19.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in the Italian second division last season and holds the special honor of scoring more college points than any other Canadian in his four-year career at Niagara University. Last season: Fourth place (17-13) in the regular season, lost to Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the third-place game at the Final Four. Best case: Avi who? After reaching a second straight Final Four appearance, Ashkenazi's name is no longer mentioned in the streets of Nahariya. Worst case: Ashkenazi leaves the commentary booth and returns to Nahariya in the middle of the season after a long Ironi losing streak. HAPOEL GALIL ELYON-GOLAN Oded Katash returns as coach with one of the youngest squads in the league. Nineteen-year-old Yugev Ohayon will once again get plenty of playing time and will be expected to continue to improve in all aspects of the game. Katash has brought in four young foreigners with 23-year-old Kenny Adeleke looking like a real steal. Adeleke averaged 20.7 points and 13.1 rebounds per game at Hartford University last year and will give Galil a strong presence under the baskets. Another interesting new face at Galil-Golan is Robert Rothbart, who at 2.16 meters is the tallest player in the league. Rothbart is recovering from a serious injury and any kind of contribution will be a huge bonus for Galil. Player to watch out for: Omri Caspi. The 18-year-old has long been earmarked as the next big thing in Israeli basketball and his abilities will finally be on full display at Galil this season. Caspi, 2.03m, joined Galil on loan from Maccabi Tel Aviv, which will be hoping the forward develops in the north into its next Israeli star. Last season: Fifth place (14-16). Best case: Katash's youngsters gel and Galil battles for a place in the Final Four. Worst case: Lack of experience drags Galil to bottom half of the standings. ELITZUR ASHKELON Ashkelon begins its fifth season in the BSL with a big question mark over the future of the club. The team is under new ownership, which only began building the team at the start of August and will begin the season with a less-than-complete squad. The club signed coach Roni Bosani and, despite not having a full squad, won the inaugural preseason Winner Cup. Ashkelon only has two foreigners: Marcus Hatten, who was the leading scorer in the BSL last season with 23 ppg; and Ellis Myles who joins the team from Italian club Reggio Calabria, where he averaged 15.9 ppg and 10.3 rpg. Player to watch out for: Or Eitan. The swingman will be looking to build on his breakthrough season last year at Maccabi Rishon Lezion and with his club's depleted squad, he will surely get every opportunity to do so. The 25-year-old is a fantastic three-point shooter and will be an important piece in Bosani's side. Last season: Sixth place (13-17). Best case: Guarantees its BSL survival in the first half of the season. Worst case: New ownership rebuilds the team once again next summer after being relegated to the National League. MACCABI GIVAT SHMUEL After its miraculous survival last season, Givat Shmuel will be hoping for further progress under coach Ofer Berkovic. The club has kept the core of its squad from last season, with Bo Davis from the University of Wisconsin and Nigerian Tunji Awojobi from Ironi Ramat Gan the two notable offseason signings. The team will bitterly miss Timmy Bowers, who left for Jerusalem, but will at least console itself with the fact that Israeli veterans Moshe Brenner, Dror Cohen and Oren Aharoni are still around to lead the team. Wayne Wallace will also be back and after an inconsistent season last year will be expected to raise his level of play. Player to watch out for: Jason Straight. The young American was picked up by Givat Shmuel midway through last season after being cut by Galil-Golan and was key in his side's battle against relegation. Straight averaged 15.3 points last season and will once again be taking his team's big shots when the game goes down to the wire. Last season: Seventh place (13-17). Best case: Comes up just short of a Final Four place. Worst case: Berkovic's magic fades and Givat Shmuel battles relegation again. BNEI HASHARON Coach Effi Birenboim takes charge of Bnei Hasharon for a second time after guiding the team in 2002/03. Despite having one of the more impressive squads in the league, Birenboim's side has had a disappointing preseason. The team found wins hard to come by over the summer, but if and when it gels, it will likely battle for a Final Four spot. Ousmane Cisse (12.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) remains with the team and once more will be key to the side's success. Cookie Belcher began last season with Bnei Hasharon and despite missing most of the year with a serious injury, the club decided to bring him back for another year. Israelis Moshe Mizrahi (10.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Erez Katz (8 ppg, 3.9 apg) joined the team and will be important for their side on offense and defense, respectively. Player to watch out for: Lee Nailon. Only signed with the team last week, but if he plays anywhere near his best, Bnei Hasharon will have one of the best front courts in the league. The 31-year-old played in the NBA for six seasons, averaging 8.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. His most impressive season came two years ago for the New Orleans Hornets, where he scored 14.2 ppg and grabbed 4.4 rpg. The impressive stats are overshadowed by the players' off court problems, which cost him his NBA career. Last season: Ninth place (12-18). Best case: Nailon and Cisse combine for a lethal offensive-defensive combo and the club reaches the Final Four. Worst case: Nailon's off-court issues continue to haunt him in Israel and Belcher's knee flares up, leaving Bnei Hasharon to fight against relegation. IRONI RAMAT GAN Despite being relegated to the National League last season after finishing second-to-last in the BSL, Ramat Gan will play in the top tier once again this, thanks to Hapoel Holon. Holon finished at the top of the National League last season, but after failing to raise the minimum budget to take part in the BSL, the team was forced to continue playing in the second league. Ironi is guided by Hanoch Mintz, who will have a hard time improving on last year's league position. Mintz has brought in American John Allen from the Finnish league and Torraye Braggs, who played for Hapoel Jerusalem four seasons ago. Itzik Ohanon will have a great chance to finally have his long awaited breakthrough season with Mintz bound to give him plenty of court time. Another attraction at Ramat Gan will be 44-year-old Fred Campbell, who refuses to retire from the game. Player to watch out for: Jai Lewis. The 23-year-old comes to Ramat Gan from George Mason University, where he was key in helping his team to the NCAA Final Four last season. Lewis, who averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.7 rpg, tried his luck this summer in football with the New York Giants after not being drafted by an NBA team. After that didn't work out, he decided to come to Israel to play for Ramat Gan. Last season: 10th place (10-20). Best case: Ramat Gan escapes relegation in the last week of the season. Worst case: Ironi finishes last and gets relegated one year overdue. HAPOEL AFULA/GILBOA Hapoel was promoted after finishing second in the National League last season. Avner Yaor, who guided the team into the BSL, left over the summer for the assistant job at Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania under Israeli coach Sharon Drucker. Dani Franco, who coached Ironi Ramat Gan last season, has taken his place. Michael Johnson comes to Hapoel from Italy, where he averaged 18.7 ppg and will be the team's first option on offense. Afula/Gilboa's also brought in experienced Israeli Uri Cohen-Mintz, who returns to the BSL from the French league, and will need to regain the form of his glory days to give his team any hope of staying in the league. Player to watch out for: Antonio Meeking. The American is a beast under the baskets and gives Hapoel the big man it needs to compete in the BSL. Meeking played for Frankfurt last year, averaging 12.9 ppg and 6 rpg and if Afula/Gilboa stays in the BSL, you can be sure Meeking will have played a crucial part in his side's survival. Last season: National league runner-up. Best case: Mintz and Meeking give the north something to cheer about with BSL survival. Worst case: Coach Franco relegates a team for a second straight year.