By Jeff Taylor
It's incredible to think that a Spartak Moscow Region side that includes Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles might not win a title in 2008-09.
Yet that is a real possibility.
UMMC Ekaterinburg beat Spartak in the Cup of Russia final and also to first place in the regular season in the Superleague.
Spartak are going after a third straight EuroLeague Women crown but to pull off the feat, they must overcome their nemesis UMMC at the Final Four on April 2 in Salamanca.
Fowles, who will play in her first European Final Four, said to Basketball World News: "It's going to be a very tough game.
|Sylvia Fowles may be the key to Spartak's third straight EuroLeague Women title.|
"They have great players, but at the same time we have to go in there and be focused and worry about what our team can do. (If we) Play good defense, then everything else should work in our favor."
Former MiZo Pecs boss Laszlo Ratgeber is in his first year as Spartak coach and he is missing a key player that was on the club's two EuroLeague title-winning sides in USA international Tina Thompson.
Yet there is still plenty of firepower in the squad with his three USA Olympic gold medal winners Taurasi, Bird and Fowles, and Australia international Jackson.
The team's fate may be end up being determined by Fowles, arguably the biggest and most important signing in the EuroLeague Women.
The 1.98m center dominated at the Beijing Olympics and became justifiably Spartak's number one priority before the season.
In her 15 EuroLeague Women contests this season, Fowles averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Defense is where she intimidates the most. The former Louisiana State University center swatted an average of 1.5 shots per game.
Fowles says her year with Spartak has been terrific.
"It's been all in one," she said.
"You have Diana, you have Lauren, you have Sue. But at the same time, you have those role players like Irina (Osipova) and Tatiana (Shchegoleva) to help you and maintain that good feel of Russia."
If Ratgeber was feeling the heat after falling in the Cup of Russia, he didn't show it at the EuroLeague Women All-Star Game in Paris where he had only positive things to say about his squad.
"They're really hard workers and it is fantastic working with them," he said.
Ratgeber knows what people must have thought last summer when he was named coach.
It was as if he had been handed the keys to a Ferrari.
The expectation was that he would win the races to the Cup of Russia, the EuroLeague Women and the Superleague.
The truth of the matter is that Spartak were not at their best for the Cup of Russia. Jackson and Taurasi, especially, were slowed by the flu which ultimately prevented them from travelling to Paris for the All-Star Game.
The whole experience in Russia has been very different for Ratgeber.
It is, he says, very difficult to compare leading Spartak to any of his previous coaching jobs.
"You cannot say this job is harder or easier," Ratgeber said.
"In some ways it is easier, and in other ways it is harder. It's different."
Ratgeber is clearly a happy coach.
"I think we have a really good chemistry in the team and I'm really enjoying it," he said.
He knows that Ekaterinburg are dangerous opponents for the Semi-Final.
"We have three battles with Ekaterinburg - one in the Russian Cup, one in the Superleague championship and one in the EuroLeague," Ratgeber said.
"But the games are different because in Russia you have to have two Russians on the court. I think that the game in the Semi-Final of the EuroLeague will be a Star Wars.
"I think we will have to stop their transition, their fast break. Individually, they have great stars at every position. I think if we play good defense, on offense we'll have enough power. But it's one game."
Much is riding on that game for Spartak, who are looking to make history with a third straight championship.
Fowles smiles when asked if she and her talented teammates are feeling pressure.
"No, not at all," she said.