Maccabi Tel Aviv has been handed a relatively comfortable draw for the Top 16 of this season's Euroleague. The draw, which was held in Barcelona yesterday, also handed Maccabi some match-ups against very familiar foes.
First up is the mighty Barcelona, which includes Chuck Eidson, who last season wore the yellow jersey of Maccabi. Then there's Bennet Cantu, which defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of the competition back in 1982. Since then, however, Cantu has gone steadily downhill and is now a very mediocre team. It is just beginning to find its feet in the top European competition after a three-decade absence.
Another erstwhile rival - Zalgiris Kaunas - should not pose too much of a threat to Maccabi, despite getting the better of the Israeli champion in 2004. In fact, with a losing record in the group stage of the competition, it's something of a miracle that Zalgiris has even made it into the Top 16 at all.
So while it's difficult to see Maccabi pipping Barcelona to top stop in this group, it's even harder to envisage how it could fail to take second spot and book its place in the Final Four.
On paper, Maccabi's group would seem a lot more comfortable than Group E, which includes the unbeaten CSKA Moscow (which looks set to retain the services of Utah Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko for the entire season, despite the end of the lockout ), as well as the always-tough Olympiakos and two Turkish teams. Group F, meanwhile, contains three teams from Spain - the best basketball league in Europe at the moment - as well as Siena from Italy.
If Maccabi does indeed progress to the quarterfinal playoff, it will face one of the top two teams in Group G, which includes Fenerbahce Ulker, Panathinaikos, Unics Kazan and Armani Milan.
Speaking to the Euroleague website after yesterday's draw, Maccabi head coach David Blatt said he was less interested in topping the group.
"The most important thing is to advance to the playoffs," he said. "It's less critical from what place. I want to remind people that last season we finished second and went to the Final Four and two years ago Maccabi was first and unfortunately did not advance past the playoffs."
Asked about his team's prospects for the road ahead, Blatt said, "We are in good shape and improving all the time, but we need to be even sharper for the first Top 16 game on January 19."
Blatt described the group itself as "fine; not too easy and not too tough."
"I think our situation is good," he said. "Barcelona - together with CSKA - has the deepest team in the Euroleague. It's experienced and has great quality, but we can find the way to beat them, certainly at home."
"Cantu is an excellent team and not many people are familiar with them," he continued. "It's one of the big surprises of this Euroleague season. Cantu has achieved a few amazing results. It's a stubborn and dangerous team that knows how to beat better teams."
Zalgiris, meanwhile, "is very experienced and always dangerous, especially at home," Blatt said.
Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi commented, "Any group that features Barcelona is of course attractive. It should be a hot winter. I am only sad that we cannot fit more fans into our arena to see our home games in the Top 16."
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