After a long and gruelling club competition season, Unics Kazan and Maroussi Athens will take the floor at 19:30 (local time) on Saturday to decide who becomes the 2004 FEL Champion.
It would seem that Unics are holding all the aces. They are playing in their own arena in front of their own fans and have only lost twice this season in European competition. Maroussi have been defeated 5 times.
They have the big name players such as Saulius Stombergas, Chris Anstey, Eurlelijus Zukauskas and Martin Müürsepp, while the captain of Maroussi is a 21-year old (Vassilis Spaneoulis) who has not yet played for the Greek national team.
Appearances can of course be deceptive and while Maroussi cannot rely on stars, they look to get their strength from team spirit.
“Our players understand that they can play with anybody using their hearts and their minds and they can force their opponents into making mistakes,” said Maroussi Head Coach Panagiotis Yiannakis in the pre-game press conference, “I will try to make my players understand that a game is a game and to go out, have fun and play without pressure.”
In a sense, this has been the philosophy of the team all season. Perhaps not favoured by pundits at the start of the year, Maroussi has been top of the Greek League virtually the entire season in front of teams with bigger traditions, and budgets.
|Unics forward Lamarr Greer is injured|
Kazan has also been at the top of the Russian league, trailing only powerhouse CSKA Moscow. Basketball in Kazan does not have a rich heritage, but over the past few years the club, with the help of the authorities in the region of Tartastan, have been building for the future.
They can now boast one of the best teams in Russian basketball and a brand new 10,000 seat arena, which is one of the best in Europe. Indeed, Kazan is now behind only Moscow in sporting terms and has top teams in ice hockey, football and volleyball. Construction will soon begin on a 12,000 seat ice hockey arena.
For Maroussi, building for the future is also important.
“We don’t have such a big budget,” says Yiannakis. “but my team wants to push our results higher and to encourage investors into basketball.”
“We want to help to promote basketball in Russia and across Europe.”
Statistically there is little to separate the 2 teams. Unics have averaged 86 ppg in the FEL this year, Maroussi 85. They both shoot 38% from the 3-point line and dish on average 16 assists per game.
Saulius Stombergas showed that he is ready to step up and lead his team and his 29 points were the key contribution to Kazan’s semi-final destruction of Ural Great Perm. For Maroussi, though, they cannot afford to concentrate on one player.
“Unics play very attractive basketball and to try to stop only one player is a mistake,"said Yiannakis. "We have to play strong team defense and concentrate on all players, not just Stombergas."
For Kazan, head coach Stanislav Eremine acknowledges Maorussi’s strong defense and the Greek basketball tradition.
“Greek basketball is one of the strongest in Europe,” said Eremine.
“It is always difficult when we play Greek teams and the games are always close. I want to compete and I hope they don’t play defense like they did yesterday.”
Both teams are facing slight injury problems to their foreign players. Maorussi’s top scorer and rebounder Andre Hutson is carrying a leg injury and played only 20 minutes against Tel Aviv. Kazan’s Lamarr Greer is also injured and did not get off the bench against Perm, although
Kazan’s big lead gave Eremine the luxury of allowing Greer to rest.
Behind the 2 teams stand 2 basketball legends. Eremine was a star player in the Soviet Union while Yiannakis was one of the best scorers in the history of the game in Europe. If Maroussi win tomorrow, Yiannakis will become the only Greek to ever win a European cup as a player and coach.
Yiannakis is, however, modest enough to acknoledge the role of his players.
“It is always a challenge as a sportsmen to win,” he said of his personal goals on winning the title, “But the players are the ones who make the difference. We just help them to try to understand how to win.”
It is a challenge that both teams will undertake in Kazan on Saturday and the winner will be crowned the 2004 FEL champion.