By Yarone Arbel
|Mike Wilkinson (pictured) and Jeremiah Masey have averaged 32.4 points and 15 rebounds between them so far in the EuroChallenge, but Spartak have the players to keep Lokomotiv's dynamic frontcourt duo at bay, argues Yarone Arbel|
The first game of the EuroChallenge Final Four features two Russian teams - Spartak St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Kuban.
Their success isn't limited to the EuroChallenge, as both teams also run for the top spot in the Russian league, while Spartak also won the Russian cup recently.
A head-to-head match-up in the semi-finals between two Russian teams means Russia will have a representative in the title game, and that's worth a few lines in itself.
The first three years of the competition were dominated by teams from Russia, as Unics Kazan and Dynamo St Petersburg won the first two editions and BC Khimki was a runner-up the third year.
Then came three years of drought from the Eastern giant yet last season Krasnye Krylia jumped back to the trophy game.
2011 then marks the return of the "Russians in the finals" streak.
Long Hard Road
There was no more dominating team this season than Spartak. They dropped only two games the entire season, the second having no influence on the standings.
Then came a sweep of Pinar Karsiyaka in the play-offs, including an 18-point win in Turkey in front of 4,000 fanatic fans, against a team that hadn't lost a game by more than 6 points the entire season.
Lokomotiv are actually the only Final Four team to make it without the home court advantage in the quarter-finals.
They finished in both the Regular Season and the Last 16 with a 4-2 record but swept BCM Gravelines Dunkerque to grab the Final Four spot, thanks to a last second bucket by Lionel Chalmers which gave them a one-point overtime win in France.
What Makes It Special?
The first semi-final has a quite appealing stand-out aspect.
These two teams are ranked second and third in this EuroChallenge season in points scored per game, which gives another reason to have high expectations of them.
Moreover, you can't find in the entire competition a team with more power, depth and impressive line-ups than these two Russian sides.
Spartak's roster features names like Anton Ponkrashov, Patrick Beverley,,who joined mid-season and flirted with a triple double in his last game, Pero Antic, Henry Domercant, Nikola Dragovic, Petar Popovic and Miha Zupan who carries also a very special personal story, but makes sure nobody will feel the difference right away.
Lokomotiv display a set of talent in Mike Wilkinson, Jeremiah Massey, Chris Lofton ,who joined recently and still trying to find his spot, Lionel Chalmers, Alando Tucker, Goran Jeretin and Alexey Surotsev.
The first two share the paint and have a big influence on both ends of the floor. Wilkinson's one-on-one defense next to Massey's steals and blocks make them perhaps the most productive front line in the competition.
Stand Out Figures
Oddly enough, of the four participating teams only one has players that lead a statistical category in the competition.
Lokomotiv's Wilkinson is leading the Field Goals Made and Two-Point Field Goals Made tables while Massey is the best offensive rebounder in the competition.
The dominance of these two inside players could be the key for Kuban, but coach Zvi Sherf has a blue collar trio in the face of Antic, Popovic and Zupan that battles under the boards and takes no prisoners.
Wait, actually they do take prisoners. If they limit or capture Massey and Wilkinson it could make a big difference.
Spartak on the other end are standing on top of the Turnovers Per Game table - from the good side, that is.
They turn the ball over fewer times than any other team in the EuroChallenge, despite relying on a somewhat young backcourt, led by 25-year-old Ponkrashov and 23-year-old Beverley.
Considering the presence of Domercant, the best offensive tool of Spartak yet also a player who can get out of control at times, it's even more impressive.
Nevertheless, that trio is responsible for almost 50% of Spartak's turnovers.
On the other side will wait Lofton and Chalmers, two quick American guards who can and should put a lot of pressure on the ball.
Their ability to push Spartak above their turnovers ratio could be a difference maker.
Keep in mind the latest addition to Kuban's roster, Lofton,who is one of the deadliest scorers in all of Europe.
He still hasn't fully adjusted to his new team, but if he finds his spot this weekend, he can be a huge headache for Spartak.