The Euroleague Top 16 will bring in 2014 and even though the second phase is an exhausting process with 14 rounds being played, there are some intriguing match-ups and familiar faces returning to their old clubs.
It will also be interesting to see how the two remaining undefeated sides in Olympiacos and Real Madrid fare against the powers from the other groups. Also in the Top 16 are the Eurocup champions Lokomotiv Kuban who have kept up the tradition of past Eurocup champions advancing to the Top 16 since the ‘licence’ system was brought in.
Wildcard Bayern Munich are in the mix as well as Partizan, who make their return to the second stage of the Euroleague.
Who’s our money on for the quarter-finals on the road to London Milan?
Olympiacos not only topped a tough looking Group C but they did so with a 10-0 record. The champions have played with extreme confidence and have shown great poise when the game comes down to the last shot. Unlike Real Madrid, Olympiacos are better prepared for the bigger and better teams that what they have already faced. Plus they have a certain team from across the way facing them twice
We have yet to see the best from Barcelona, who, on paper has the best team (personally) of individuals in the Euroleague. They have quality guards, forwards and centers who can decide an outcome of a game on their own. But for Huertas, Papanikolaou and Navarro, it’s been a mixed season so far. They enter Group E with a 7-3 record and some questionable performances as well. However, with the field narrowing down, Barcelona always seems to go up a few gears and should be a last eight team after round 14.
Once again Fenerbahce are in the Top 16, but unlike a failed season last year that promised so much, they have more weapons this year and a coach that can handle them. Fenerbahce’s performance in the Regular Season, particularly in the first six games shows that they are a contender if they play to how coach Obradovic wants them to play.
The Greens will no doubt up their game in the Top 16, especially as they will do anything and everything in their power to stop Olympiacos from qualifying to the last eight. While that might be out of their reach, certainly Panathinaikos will challenge all teams in Group E and with 18,000 fanatical fans behind them at the OAKA, they should seal the last spot for the quarter-finals. And look for an emotional return to Athens for legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, now coach of Fenerbahce. Mike Batiste-style tears, maybe?
5. Laboral Kutxa
With players returning from injury and getting match fit again, might a change in line-ups be the undoing of Laboral Kutxa in the Top 16? The saving grace is that there are 14 rounds of basketball to be played. It will be a tight race to see who snatches fourth spot but expect the Spaniards to miss out.
6. Unicaja Malaga
A team that can be competitive but lacks the firepower required to beat the Euroleague’s big teams and with a more star-studded group in Group E than in Group F, the Liga Endesa side might struggle to go further. But they will give it a go.
7. Anadolu Efes
While they will still be a difficult opponent for anyone in Group E, the departure of coach Oktay Mahmuti for former Olympiacos assistant Vangelis Angelou will be an interesting one. Certainly the Turkish side are thinking slightly long term, but with a transitional phase now ahead, the last eight maybe slightly out of touch.
8. EA7 Milano
With the Final Four being in Milan, no team will be more motivated than EA7 Milano, but the last time a team “hosted” a Final Four was in 2007 and Panathinaikos won it all. However, this will be a tough group with Euroleague winners and current holders included. Milano will struggle.
1. Real Madrid
It’s hard to see any other team top Group F other than the favourites Real Madrid, who have had a comfortable route to the Top 16, being the other team to finish 10-0. Group B though was one of the easier to predict following the first round of games. This group will see Real tested, especially against CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Electra but they will be a quarter-final side, barring a major incident.
2. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv
Maccabi have coasted through the Regular Season despite two defeats to Laboral Kutxa, they have played an exciting brand of basketball and have been especially dangerous at their Nokia Arena base. The games against Real Madrid will be major tests but the Israeli giants, currently looking to retain their domestic prize should make it to the last eight.
3. Lokomotiv Kuban
Eurocup winners from the season before always seem to do well in the Euroleague, whether they are established or not. Lokomotiv Kuban are no exception. They have been fun to watch and have multiple threats, offensively. They will relish playing in the Top 16 and being placed in the easier of the two groups has helped matters as well. Plus, they have unfinished business with Maccabi too.
4. CSKA Moscow
CSKA Moscow, a traditional Euroleague powerhouse and usual ‘tenants’ of the Final Four haven’t been entirely convincing this season, seeing off teams reasonably comfortably but failing to rise to the occasion against the other established teams. A rare game against countrymen Kuban awaits, but look for CSKA to squeeze through.
They have talent at all positions and are tricky opponents at home. For Galatasaray though, what lets them down is their form away from the Abdi Ipecki and with the teams mentioned above in this group, the European side of Istanbul will not be staging basketball beyond the second round.
The Lithuanian champions have not really settled again in the Euroleague. It’s a second Euroleague where they started with coach Ilias Zouros and now have someone different at the helm. Plus the Kaunas-based side have had their share of injury concerns over the course of the Regular Season. A few wins won’t make their Top 16 campaign a disaster and Zalgiris are always tough to play against at home, but away form, like Galatasaray lets them down. They have only won one away game this season in five games played.
7. Bayern Munich
Playing their first two games against Zalgiris and Partizan will help Euroleague first-timers Bayern Munich ease into the Top 16 mood, but a trip to Real Madrid will then follow and reality might set in then and there. Either way, this has been a fantastic experience for the German side and one they can benefit from, as they no doubt have more Euroleague experiences to follow. The record though for German teams in the Top 16 isn’t healthy, and Bayern look sure to keep it that way.
They scraped though to the Top 16, but while this is a new beginning following the Regular Season, the odds on Partizan advancing with the squad they have at both ends, knowing that teams like Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow will be visiting will be stacked high. The latter of the two teams mentioned have already won in Belgrade as well.