EUROCHALLENGE FINAL FOUR
Besiktas Milangaz have fulfilled the pre-season predictions of many a basketball expert by reaching the EuroChallenge Final Four.
Now surprising Szolnoki Olaj, the hosts of this weekend's spectacle, are going to pull out all stops in a bid to stop the star-studded team from capturing the title when the sides meet in the Semi-Finals on Friday.
The event is being staged in Debrecen, Hungary.
While Szolnoki will not be in their own arena, one that has been a fortress in Europe the past two season, they are almost certain to have the benefit of home-court advantage.
And they'll need it against Besiktas, who boast arguably the most talented line-up of the teams at the Final Four.
Linchpins in Ergin Ataman's Turkish squad include Zoran Erceg, Carlos Arroyo, David Hawkins and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
Besiktas also have Serhat Cetin, the MVP of their Turkish Cup Final triumph over Banvit, Ersin Dagli and Marcelus Kemp.
Arroyo has carried a few knocks this season and hasn't always been in top form since joining the club in late December.
But the Puerto Rico international has been healthier of late and he demonstrated that at the weekend when leading the team with 17 points in an 81-77 triumph over Trabzonspor.
Kemp missed three months of EuroChallenge action while recovering from injury but returned and played in a vital game on 13 March at Artland Dragons that Besiktas won, 74-73.
They won the next encounter at home to progress to the Final Four.
"We currently have an opportunity in our hands," Ataman said.
"A European Cup gives hope to Besiktas and Turkish basketball.
"Besiktas is a great community ... a EuroChallenge win would be an important achievement in my career."
Unlike Besiktas, who swept Artland 2-0 in their Quarter-Final series to reach the Final Four, Szolnoki had to claw back a 1-0 deficit against BK Ventspils.
Peter Por's men were soundly beaten in the opener, 82-63 in Latvia, yet rebounded and claimed an 82-76 victory at home before prevailing at Ventspils 20 March, 82-78.
Similar to Besiktas, Szolnoki are already assured of ending the season with at least one trophy as they downed Atomeromu SE in the Hungarian Cup final earlier this month.
Season So Far
Szolnoki Olaj have enjoyed a dream season in Europe. The club had to survive a tense Qualifying Round tie with Tampereen Pyrintö. After falling in the first leg, 77-69, in Finland, the Hungarian outfit bounced back with a 69-57 win in the return leg for a four-point success on aggregate. At home this season, Szolnoki were nearly unbeatable. They won eight of their nine games, including the second-leg triumph over Tampereen in the qualifiers. Last season, Szolnoki prevailed in all four of their games at home. Despite the Final Four being in Hungary, Szolnoki are not being touted as favorites. That, coupled with the facts that Por's team has already won the domestic cup and is also in the Hungarian play-off semi-finals eases some of the pressure on the players as they look to beat Besiktas.
Besiktas have caused a stir like never before in the EuroChallenge and much of that is owed to the fact that Deron Williams turned out for the club during the NBA Lockout. Williams had a 50-point explosion in a game against BG Göttingen on 22 November, his last in the competition. Williams then had his jersey raised to the rafters in the Besiktas arena before his return to the New Jersey Nets. His departure did not signal a decline for Besiktas, who actually began the season looking to qualify for the Eurocup but were eliminated by Dexia Mons-Hainaut. Instead, Besiktas moved from strength to strength and lost just twice. Both defeats came against Mad-Croc Fuenlabrada. In their decisive series against Artland, a team that had been red hot, Mensah-Bonsu was immense. The Great Britain big man had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the one-point triumph in Game 1, and then 25 points, 17 boards, two blocks and two steals in Game 2.
The Hot Hand
Carlos Arroyo seems to have shifted into a higher gear the past couple of weeks and not just with his
|Pops Mensah-Bonsu is a dominant force for Besiktas Milangaz under the basket|
playmaking ability. The Puerto Rican has made 11 of his last 25 attempts from long range in Turkey's Beko Basketbol Ligi and has buried 47.3% (25 of 57) on the season. He is shooting 89% (57 of 64) from the charity stripe.
Szolnoki's Akos Horvath is a player that can stretch the Besiktas defense. He has been prolific from long range, nailing 53.5% (38 of 71) of his attempts in the EuroChallenge. Horvath is not a player that shies away from the big occasion, either. The 31-year-old made all four of his three-ball attempts in the decisive Game 3 win against Ventspils that got Szolnoki into the Final Four.
The pressure is going to be on Szolnoki point guard Obie Trotter, who has been a handful for opponents. He has led his team with averages of 17 points and 4.4 assists, but it remains to be seen if he can withstand the attention that he is sure to receive from the Besiktas defense. If Trotter is allowed to run wild, creating opportunities for himself and his teammates, Szolnoki will be right in the game until the end.
Marcelus Kemp is a force for Besiktas when healthy, and particularly on offense. If he can provide some points from the perimeter, big men Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ersin Dagli and Zoran Erceg will have more room to operate in the low post.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu v Marton Bader. Mensah-Bonsu is the leading rebounder in the EuroChallenge at 10.8 per game and ranks fourth in scoring at 18.3. Bader crashes the boards well himself, averaging eight while in the scoring department, he's been scoring at a clip of 9.1 per contest.