Euroleague Draw Leaves Maccabi With Mixed Feelings

If the management of Maccabi Tel Aviv was worried that the somewhat lackluster squad assembled for the upcoming season would fail to fill seats, yesterday's draw in Berlin to determine the composition of Euroleague groups was a windfall.

Sharing the bracket with Maccabi in Group A will be not only the strongest of the second-seed teams, but one of the finest in Europe - Olympiacos.

The return of former Maccabi stars Nikola Vujcic and Yotam Halperin to Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena in the red uniforms of the Greek titan is sure to draw back weary fans. The two teams are scheduled to meet on January 8.

The format of the lottery is such that the teams that appeared in the Final Four - Maccabi, CSKA Moscow, Tau Ceramica and Montepaschi Siena - are each assigned to different groups. Each group is filled out by three other teams, according to where they finished in the rankings last season.

Indeed, if club chairman Shimon Mizrahi was worried the team would struggle to reach the Top 16, his fears were allayed as Maccabi was placed in a group with France's Le Mans and Italy's Avellino, teams that would not even make the Final Four in the Israeli league.

For several years, Olympiacos has been battling with nemesis Panathinaikos for Greek supremacy, to be bested time and again by its rival in the Euroleague quarterfinals.

In recent years, Olympiacos president Socratis Kokkalis has given a free hand to coach Panagiotis Giannakis to recruit any player he pleases.

Olympiacos brought Theodoros Papaloukas back from CSKA, wooed Vujcic and Halperin from Maccabi and signed center Zoran Erceg from Serbia. Lynn Greer and Sophocles Schortsanitis will also continue on the roster. However, the club is still searching for a forward to replace Qyntel Woods, suspended last season for drug use.

Anthony Parker, formerly of Maccabi and currently playing for the NBA's Toronto Raptors, received a surprise offer, which he promptly rejected, but Olympiacos still possesses the funds to lure an NBA-caliber player.

The old and new Maccabi face off

Several Greek journalists joked about the anticipated Maccabi-Olympiacos match-up as a "derby between the original Maccabi and Maccabi Piraeus," referring to the port city near Athens where the Greek team holds court.

Giannakis, the Olympiacos coach, expressed more serious sentiments.

"My dream, that of the professional staff and that of the players, is to have a great season in Europe. Personally, I don't agree that Olympiacos has been drawn into an easy group, from which the path ahead will be clear and easy. Maccabi and [Spanish side Unicaja] Malaga are strong and respected teams, and we can also expect tough competition from the other teams, especially on their home courts," he told the Greek press.

"I would suggest holding off on declarations and predictions, since we have a lot of time left, and club rosters are not yet closed," he said.

Vujcic said the placement of the two rivals together was to be expected.

"It was clear that it would happen. I didn't need the draw to know that. The fact that I'm coming back to Nokia against Maccabi isn't something I'm crazy about, but it is special. Being in Tel Aviv is always a lot of fun. Apparently the fight over first place will be between Maccabi, Malaga and us," he added.

Malaga and Cibona are no picnic

The draw between the third-seed teams also poses a challenge for Maccabi. It could have been worse - Spanish champion Real Madrid, for example - but Malaga is no treat either.

Coach Sergio Scariolo has left the team, and Joventut Badalona coach Aito Garcia Reneses will take his place should the Spanish governing body allow him to fill the position while at the same time managing Spain's national team.

This is the third year in a row that Maccabi is meeting Malaga in the Euroleague group stage, and while Maccabi lost three of its leading players last year, Malaga has managed to keep the strongest elements on its roster at home.

The Czech Republic's Efes Pilsen or Lithuania's Zalgiris Kaunas could have turned Group A into the Group of Death, but happily for Maccabi, the fourth-seed place was doled out to Cibona Zagreb of Croatia.

It remains unclear how much of a threat Cibona will pose to Maccabi's Men in Yellow. After a disappointing last season, it brought in coach Velimir Perasovic from Croatian rival KK Split, who has raised high hopes for the club but has yet to prove his mettle.

Le Mans is beginning its third season in the Euroleague. It won four games in its first season and two in its second, including two losses to Maccabi. Israeli guard Raviv Limonad has left the club and returned to Nahariya, but current Maccabi forward David Bluthenthal is expected to sign on.

The team's new coach, Canadian J.D. Jackson, may even do the impossible and lead the team to the Top 16.

Rounding out the group is Avellino. The most surprising team in the Italian league this year, it has never before appeared in Euroleague play. Its strongest players, Devin Smith and Marques Green, have left the team, and its only significant acquisition until now has been Macedonian coach Zare Markovski.

Maccabi can look at the Euroleague draw as a mixed blessing: Its placement with Olympiacos means this season will be anything but a cakewalk.

After last season's failure to capture either the Israeli championship or the State Cup, and its defeat in the Euroleague final to CSKA, a good fight may be just what the team needs to keep its fans on board.