Euroleague Basketball: Yellow-and-blue ready to take on Europe

Euroleague Basketball Y

mac ta 248.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
mac ta 248.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
After last season's disappointing Euroleague campaign, Maccabi Tel Aviv embarks on yet another quest to reach the Final Four of continental basketball's premier competition on Thursday night when it hosts Olimpija Ljubljana at the Nokia Arena. Maccabi failed to progress past the Euroleague Top 16 for the first time in six years last season and once more overhauled its roster in the summer. Nine of the team's 13 players joined the yellow-and-blue in the offseason, but at least the signing of Pini Gershon to a lucrative contract until the end of the 2010/11 season has set the foundation for some stability at the club. In each of the five previous seasons he started as Maccabi coach, Gershon led the side to the European title game, lifting the trophy in 2001, 2004 and 2005. In his two previous tenures at the club (99-01 and 03-06), Gershon built two great teams, achieving success by maintaining the core of the sides for several years, something which the club has not been able to accomplish in the past three seasons. The 57-year-old coach began building his current roster long before last season ended and he is confident his team has the potential to achieve great things. "With the players we have and with home court advantage we should beat Ljubljana," Gershon said on Thursday. "There are advantages and disadvantages to playing the first game at home. Our fans give us the best support and this season Nokia Arena will be packed once more, so we owe them positive basketball and a win in this special game. "We can't allow ourselves to lose such games if we want to reach our goals. We will try to find the best lineup and match-ups early enough, to make sure we start off with a win." The Slovenian champion enters Thursday's game with plenty of question marks. The team, which is guided by former playing great Jure Zdovc, was thrashed 79-59 by Croatia's Zadar in the Adriatic league on Saturday and is carrying several injuries going into the game against Maccabi. "For us, the start of the Euroleague has come too soon," said Zdovc, who guided the Slovenian national team to a fourth place finish in this summer's EuroBasket tournament. "Our team is not playing yet at the desired level and we need more practices and games in order to reach a competitive level. "Above all, we lack the ability to play at a consistent level for 40 minutes. We also have injury problems. Vlado Ilievski isn't in Israel because he took a hit on the same muscle that he was operated on in the summer, while Sani Becirovic has back pains." Becirovic, the undoubted star of the team, is expected to play and, together with Saso Ozbolt and sharpshooter Matt Walsh, will cause Maccabi plenty of problems despite the absence of veteran playmaker Ilievski. The young Slovenians will also be a handful under the baskets with six of its players aged 26 or younger and listed at 2.09 meters or higher. "Even though we have issues, we go to Israel in order to play a good game and to show everyone that we have built a good team," Zdovc said. "It won't be easy, since Maccabi has great players, a legendary coach and every possibility of making it to the Final Four in Paris." Maccabi has signed some promising players in the summer, but its chances of success depend on the way they gel into a cohesive unit. Tel Aviv lost just one of its 11 preseason games, but the defeat to Hapoel Jerusalem in the Winner Cup final last Thursday demonstrated just how vulnerable the side currently is. Swingmen Chuck Eidson and Alan Anderson are expected to be the team's main offensive weapons, with point guard Andrew Wisniewski to share playmaking duties with Doron Perkins and Gal Mekel. Under the baskets, D'or Fischer and Yaniv Green will be the key to the team's defensive play, with new-boys Maciej Lampe and Stephane Lasme still to prove their worth. "It is very exciting to finally begin the Euroleague season," Wisniewski said. "We are very focused ahead of the game and we need to make the most of our superior defensive play and athleticism. As long as we play as a team we will win."