Photo Credits: Vangelis Stolis

Ian Vougioukas adds size and experience to the center position for Panathinaikos OPAP. Now, in his fourth overall season in the green jersey, the 33-year-old big man is a solid performer for Rick Pitino, the third coach he met in the team, after Zeljko Obradovic and Xavi Pascual.

Despite the fact that right after Pitino took over, the Greek national saw limited playing time, from the home game vs Anadolu Efes onwards, Vougioukas has participated in each and every Panathinaikos’s battle ever since. caught up with him after the Green’s home victory against Buducnost VOLI Podgorica and Ian Vougioukas talked about his role on the team, the changes brought about by Pitino, the play-off duel with Real Madrid and the influence of Nick Calathes in last year’s and this year’s version of the six-time Euroleague champions. As a finale, the experienced center referred to the loss of Thanasis Giannakopoulos, which was the last blow that the whole organization of Panathinaikos had to endure.

Q: What decided the game against Buducnost?

A: It was decided by the energy with which we entered the court. We had some outbursts in the second quarter and towards the end. We have more quality than Buducnost and we’ve proven it. It was a dangerous match because they came here without pressure.

Q: What really changed with Rick Pitino on your bench?

A: Without blaming Xavi Pascual, I think we needed a change because the players for some reason did not respond to him. I do not know why this was happening, but I do know that Pitino brought a change, a winner’s aura and a kind of certainty. The issue was purely psychological. We are the same team that started the season, but with fewer players: without Pappas and Lasme.

Q: How did Pitino’s arrival affect you;

A: I’m glad I have found a distinct role with coach Pitino. Giorgos Papagiannis obviously is playing very well, helping the team to make the comeback. We are both centers but also different players, since he does different things than I do. And Gist is important to the team, everyone is important. And those who did not play against Buducnost will be significant in the future.

Q: Over the past two years, Panathinaikos OPAP has been eliminated in the Euroleague play-offs owning the home-court advantage. This time, you will be at a disdvantage. What changes in your rationale?

A: Theoretically, we are going towards the play-offs as an outsider. This is because we got there in the last game, from the 6th place, which shows how competitive Euroleague is. We will go to the series with the mentality that we have to do 1/2 wins in Madrid, as they did to us last year. We owe them something from last year.

Q: Just a while ago, coach Pitino said: “I do not think Real Madrid will lose sleep because they’re at home”. How is it possible that Panathinaikos makes Real lose sleep?

A: They’ll lose sleep, whatever happens, regardless of who they play. If they underestimate us, they will be making a big mistake. Last year, we crushed them in the first match and the in second one we let go of the qualification. There are some players on our team from last year and they remember it. Besides, we recently lost again to them. Real Madrid has a lot of talent and quality and our coach will definitely make a plan to stop them.

Q: Nick Calathes became the second player to register a triple-double in the history of Euroleague. Did you expect it?

A: No, we didn’t expect it. Nick was close to the triple-double in previous games too. He fully deserves it. He played 37 minutes and always has full stats. I am very happy because he is a good friend of mine and I’ve known him for many years.

Q: Which is his most MVP season, if you could choose just one? Last year or this one?

A: I’d say it was last year, but what he has accomplished over the last games is unreal. Until Christmas he was having a hard time; he was often left with the ball in his hands, he was taking bad shots and thus had a low percentage on three-point shooting. Last year was his more complete season, not to underestimate this year. It’s a matter of numbers, how many times he will take the ball in his hands to make plays and decide. It’s through him that our game is controlled and, as I have said before, it’s up to him how good the team will be. And this is true whether we play Real Madrid or Kolossos Rhodes. We played Peristeri without him and we were a different team. Nick, like other players like Diamantidis, Saras and Papaloukas, can make their teammates better.

Q: Rick Pitino dedicated the qualification to the memory of Thanassis Giannakopoulos. What are you thinking, since you were on the team also at the time of the Giannakopoulos brothers’ presidency?

A: Coach Pitino had told us the same thing two or three days before the game. Certainly, it’s a big honour for our coach the fact that without knowing them very well, he understood in a very short period of time what Pavlos and Thanassis Giannakopoulos mean for the club. He quickly got into the team’s DNA and from a point where he didn’t know anything about the team, he seems to have fully grasped the importance of this club.

Q: I reckon that the absence of Thanasis Giannakopoulos, especially from the court seats of OAKA, is particularly evident lately.

A: For sure. I have not yet realized he’s gone. I remember the incident when we were playing Darussafaka and he left his seat, racing to the the team’s bench. Although he was an old man, he showed his love for the team until the very end.