Despite their current record in the Euroleague Top 16, you can never write off Olympiacos. It can easily be forgotten that they were not exactly setting the Euroleague on fire en route to being labelled underdogs in the last two Final Fours.
Yet, both in Istanbul and London, the Reds of Piraeus have stood tall when the final buzzer sounded; and the confetti and the smoke were coloured in red and white.
The back-to-back Euroleague champions though went on a slightly different path this season: They went unbeaten in their regular season group, comfortably going 10-0 and instead of being labelled mere underdogs; they were a front runner, a team that people considered to be ‘Final Four’ worthy at this early stage. But after the opening Top 16 statement win over Fenerbahce, Olympiacos saw the unbeaten streak come to a halt at the hands of EA7 Milano. And this was no closely run contest; Milano literally pounded the helpless Reds into submission, winning 81-51 in the same venue the Greeks want to be at in mid-May for the Final Four.
Olympiacos’ American guard Matt Lojeski was a stranger to Euroleague basketball; having spent his entire professional career in Belgium. But now, having seen the ups and downs that Europe’s top club competition has to offer, he has gained valuable experience and has also realised that every team has a court leader. His court leader is the reigning Euroleague and Final Four MVP Vassilis Spanoulis and despite winning their first 11 games in the Euroleague, they have lost six of the last ten. While Spanoulis is an integral part of the team, Lojeski points out a second part to the slump.
“I think we were losing a lot of close games and maybe doing different roles than before this season because of some injuries,” Lojeski explained. “We don’t want to make an excuse of injuries, but Vassilis Spanoulis is a big part of the team, and when he was missing, players’ roles changed and maybe they weren’t as comfortable as before. Also, we played Panathinaikos at Panathinaikos, which is never an easy game. But we also weren’t doing the small things we had been doing at the beginning of the year, and weren’t making certain shots we were making before to win games. Spanoulis being back helps a lot because it gives us a playmaker that we had to do without for a while.”
An underdog can always strike though. Olympiacos are tied for fourth spot with bitter rivals Panathinaikos, who are considered as one of the most successful Euroleague clubs in the modern era. It is looking like their battle on the final day of the Top 16 matches could determine the last spot in Group E for the quarter-finals if fifth placed Unicaja Malaga has any say in proceedings.
Olympiacos can say they have the upper hand in this argument as for two straight Euroleague seasons, they have been in this predicament and they have not only qualified but they have gone on to win it all.
Lojeski is a Euroleague rookie, but knows about the tradition of Olympiacos and what the historic three-peat means to this ball club. He himself has won league and cup doubles with BC Oostende in Belgium but knows that thinking about titles at this stage now can be dangerous. It’s a case of concentrating on the next game and only that next game.
“The most important thing since we got here is not to worry about how we do individually and just try to win,” he said. “When the team wins, the club is happy and the fans are happy and most likely you’ll stick on the team.
“So the idea is just be focused on that and do what you can to win. All our new guys are pretty unselfish, too, which is good. When you are on a team like Olympiacos, that’s the main thing. We might not be the most talented roster out there, but playing together and within ourselves is the main thing. We are all focused on that.”
Olympiacos travel to Istanbul, just a few miles away from the scene their 2012 triumph as they take on Anadolu Efes on Friday night.