Fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv, which visits Partizan Belgrade tonight in its third Euroleague game of the season, remember their Serbian rival well. Just last season, Partizan beat Maccabi in Tel Aviv in a quarterfinal series and denied the Israeli team a trip to the Euroleague Final Four.
This edition of Partizan is very different from last year's, when the team had an all-time-high budget of 2.5 million euros. As in previous years, the team had to rebuild this summer yet rose again like a phoenix. Partizan faced some serious losses, too.
Its spiritual mentor, coach Dusko Vujosevic, followed the money to CSKA Moscow, outstanding center Aleks Maric departed for Panathinaikos, and big man Slavko Vrenes went to Kazan. Bo McCalebb, the guard who tormented Maccabi, is now with Siena, while the effective forward Lawrence Roberts joined Efes Pilsen.
Partizan doesn't dare think about the top spot but is striving to advance from the middle of its Group A qualifying group thanks to its traditionally solid scouting. A look at its retooled lineup shows why it could upset a wealthier team like Khimki last week.
The most intriguing acquisition is post player Nathan Jawai, 24, an indigenous Australian who at 2.07 meters is a Baby Shaq to rival Maccabi's Sofoklis Schortsanitis. The former member of the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves scored 15 points and pulled down eight boards against Khimki.
Coach David Blatt says the matchup between Jawai and Schortsanitis could play to Maccabi's favor. "A lot of times teams send a small guy to guard him just to bother him, and this time it won't happen," he said.
Jan Vesely, a 20-year-old Czech who plays small forward even though he is 2.11 meters tall, has been with the team since 2008 but is coming into his own this season. Scouts expect him to be a lottery pick if he makes himself eligible for the 2011 NBA Draft.
James Gist, a 24-year-old power forward out of the University of Maryland, just joined last week to shore up the team's front court. He played last season for Lokmotiv Kuban of the Russian League, where he averaged 11.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17 games.
Other newcomers making an impact include Oliver Lafayette, a 2008 graduate of the University of Houston, and Serbian shooting guard Dragan Milosavljevic.
While Partizan fans plan to shake up the house tonight, Maccabi players were greeted yesterday with a real earthquake that registered 5.3 on the Richter scale. With the epicenter 125 kilometers south of Belgrade, some of the players say they felt the tremor, but the panic was slight.
The arena is much scarier to the team. "It's 8,000 fans who feel like 30,000," said Lior Eliyahu. "They smoke, they throw things, and it's unpleasant, but that's sometimes the best situation. It's going to be a hot game."
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