By Jeff Taylor
The first trophy of the 2010-11 European basketball campaign will be up for grabs on Monday when the SuperCup is staged in Athens, Greece.
The game features the reigning EuroLeague Women champions Sparta&K Moscow Region against the winners of last season's EuroCup Women, Sony Athinaikos.
Sparta&K will be the visitors but without question, they're heavy favorites going into the game.
The Russian team hosted the inaugural event last season in Vidnoje and hammered Galatasaray, 92-59.
"I think our chances are good because we won the EuroLeague and they won the EuroCup and it's a different level," Sparta&K star Ilona Korstin said to Basketball World News.
Korstin, a Russia international, was one of several Sparta&K players to recently compete at the FIBA World Championship for Women in the Czech Republic.
"Last year, we played it in Moscow and we won against a Turkish team so I think we have all our chances," Korstin said
"Above all, this game is important to promote women's basketball because it's an attractive game.
"Last year it was a great experience and to win the SuperCup was great for us."
Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovic, the executive director of Sparta&K and the former Russia international point guard, said: "It's a very important game.
"We've had a good preparation but we've also had problems because half of our team was in the Czech Republic for the World Championship.
"It's been difficult to get everyone together and to get them in shape."
|Veteran Athinaikos guard Dimitra Kalentzou has suffered from injury problems this summer|
A Fresh Challenge
Sparta&K are entering the new season knowing that UMMC Ekaterinburg, the two-time defending champions of Russia, are as hungry as ever to win in Europe.
For three consecutive years, UMMC have lost to Sparta&K in the Semi-Finals of the EuroLeague Women.
Fenerbahce, a side that has been knocking on the door of the Final Four but has yet to reach the showpiece event, also have the look of a team that will pull out all stops to win the title.
Fener have Australia international Penny Taylor, World Championship MVP Hana Horakova of the Czech Republic and USA basketball superstar Diana Taurasi, the long-time Sparta&K ace and MVP of their last two EuroLeague Women Final Four triumphs.
Then there is Hungarian coach Laszlo Ratgeber, the tactician who guided Sparta&K to their third EuroLeague success and was at the helm last season when Sparta&K won the SuperCup.
He surprisingly parted ways with Sparta&K shortly after and was replaced by his assistant, Pokey Chatman.
Sparta&K, therefore, will have a different coach at the SuperCup this time.
There will also be no Taurasi, although she made her contributions in last season's game as a cheerleader from the bench and not as a player.
Taurasi was at the game, however, and was introduced during the game to rapturous applause by the Sparta&K fans.
Athinaikos are coming off a history-making season in Greece.
They won the domestic cup, went unbeaten in the league and also captured the EuroCup Women with a triumph over Nadezhda Orenburg in a two-legged Final.
Similar to Sparta&K, Athinaikos have undergone some significant changes.
The club no longer has coach George Dikeoulakos.
His former assistant, Giannis Ktistakis, is now at the helm.
And the Greek outfit doesn't have the explosive American guard Candice Wiggins, who poured in more than 15 points per game in their European campaign.
Athinaikos still have an impressive squad, though, with a backcourt that should cause some problems for Sparta&K.
Olga Chatzinikolaou is the Greek team's tenacious defender.
In fact, the Greece international was one of the top defensive players at the FIBA World Championship for Women in the Czech Republic.
Then there is veteran guard Dimitra Kalentzou, who had surgery in the summer and also hurt her knee at the World Championship but was still very effective for the Greeks as they came within a whisker of reaching the Quarter-Finals on their debut in the competition before falling to Belarus.
American center Ruth Riley is back.
She played in Athinaikos' final seven EuroCup Women games last season and was immense, averaging 11.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.
Riley had already made her mark in Greece by winning a gold medal with the United States at the 2004 Olympic Games.
Ktistakis' team has also added Marina Kress, the impressive Belarus center who just had a fine World Championship.
The 1.92m Kress isn't just a center that can score down low.
She hit seven of 12 (58.3%) from long range this year as Belarus reached the Semi-Finals in their very first World Championship appearance.
Hungry For A Trophy
Sparta&K know there are a lot of questions they must answer this season.
Can they overcome the loss of Taurasi and Marina Karpunina, who went down with a serious knee injury during Russia's World Championship preparations.
How will they fare against star-studded teams like Fenerbahce and Ekaterinburg?
If anything, the trip to Greece represents an opportunity for the team to gain some confidence.
"Of course, this year it will be different because the SuperCup will be played in Greece," Korstin said.
"We know the Greek fans are crazy and they will support their team really hard.
"But I think we are ready.
"We will not have all of our players available because some players (Bird, Jackson) will join the team later but we will try to do our best.
"We will see what kind of team we have."
Sparta&K General Manager Steve Costalas is excited about returning to his native Greece.
It's a chance for that country to keep women's basketball in the spotlight.
"We're not going to have Sue Bird or Lauren Jackson at this game and (Sonja) Petrovic probably will not be ready yet and we lost Marina Karpunina so still, there are big losses," he said.
"But this is not a (Sparta&K) team about one or two players. It's a 10-person team that players like Anete Jekabone-Zogota, Noelle Quinn, Epiphanny Prince, Ilona Korstin, Irina Osipova.
"They're high level players and I think we'll do well.
"But remember, Athinaikos are good and have made some good signings."