By Jeff Taylor
|26-year-old Mexican Gustavo Ayon is back from injury and led Fuenlabrada to their first victory in the Spanish league this season|
If Spain's top flight is among the best leagues on the continent, then it stands to reason that Baloncesto Fuenlabrada are primed for a run at the EuroChallenge play-offs.
The Madrid club had an impressive seventh-place finish last season in the ACB.
That team was led by former coach Salva Maldonado, but now the man in charge is Porfirio Fisac, a coach who spent the previous few seasons at the helm of Blancos de Rueda Valladolid.
Fisac steered Blancos de Rueda to promotion from the LEB during the 2008-09 campaign.
In EuroChallenge Group A, Fuenlabrada's opponents will be Ewe Baskets Oldenburg, Norrköping Dolphins and Bemaco SPU Nitra.
"The EuroChallenge is a nice challenge and a difficult one," Fisac said.
"We have to live with two competitions and we must learn to handle the demands that this will create.
"But above all, the European competition is an opportunity for us to grow as a club and also to develop our players.
"And of course, it's a reward for the fans because they also have earned the right to compete in Europe as they support the team at every game."
One of the team's standout players from 2010-11, big man Gustavo Ayon of Mexico, will be a real threat in the low post.
He missed the team's first two games in Spain with discomfort in his left shoulder but returned to action over the weekend and had 20 points and nine rebounds in an 88-80 win over Estudiantes.
Fuenlabrada's most explosive scorer is veteran sharpshooter Kirk Penney, the New Zealand national team captain.
A member of the Tall Blacks side that made an unexpected run to the Semi-Finals of the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis, Penney is 31 but seems to be as good as ever.
"He will be one of the leaders in the team," Fisac said.
Fuenlabrada also signed Sergio Sanchez, who spent the last couple of seasons at Estudiantes.
A point guard, Sanchez had a loan spell with Fuenlabrada from Estu a few years ago.
|Robert Brown is off to a flying start in the BEKO Bundesliga. He stays on the court for 34 minutes per game and is EWE Baskets Oldenburg's leading scorer with 22.8 ppg|
Returning with Ayon are Leo Mainoldi, Jon Cortaberría Eguiluz and Lubos Barton, a veteran from the Czech Republic who has been in Spain the past several years with clubs like Joventut, Barcelona and Fuenlabrada.
Ewe Baskets Oldenburg will harbor notions of making it deep in the competition as well.
Coach Predrag Krunic will lean heavily on Ricky Paulding Jr, a player who averaged nearly 15 points and five rebounds in the 2008-09 EuroChallenge with the same club.
Ronnie Burrell, a power forward in the team, said of the team's backcourt: "With Bobby Brown and Kenny (Hasbrouck), two of the fastest guards in the league, we don't have a choice but to run."
This does not mean that Oldenburg will struggle in a slower game.
"We have a lot of experienced guys so when we play in the half-court, we know what we are doing," he said.
"But we also have some good athletes, some great athletes.
Adam Chubb is another who will be vital for Oldenburg.
The 2.08m center, in a recent win over Bayreuth, had 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Bemaco SPU Nitra finished runners-up in the Slovakian Extraliga one year ago.
The team should be entertaining with Puerto Rican guard Denis Clemente.
The lightning-quick Clemente, 25, played 27 games last season in his homeland for Caciques de Humacao and averaged 14.6 points and 4.4 assists (fifth best in the Puerto Rican league).
In their first win of the season over BK Váhostav-SK Žilina, Clemente erupted for 18 points.
The Norrköping Dolphins were solid in the EuroChallenge one year ago but the club had Joakim Kjellbom, and he was one of the reasons they got to the Last 16.
Kjellbom averaged 15.3 points and 9.1 rebounds.
He has departed for Georgia's top flight to play for Armia, so that has created a big void.
Fuenlabrada lost their first two games in Spain to Real Madrid (88-70) and Assignia Manresa (79-73), but with Gustavo Ayon back from injury, the team won 88-80 over Estudiantes on Sunday.
|American guard Andrew Mitchell was a key player for the Norrköping Dolphins in last season's EuroChallenge, averaging 14.5 points and 4.3 assists|
Ewe Baskets Oldenburg have begun their campaign in Germany's Beko BBL with three straight wins but were edged out on Sunday, 90-88, by New Yorker Phantoms. Burrell had 24 points for Ewe Baskets but it wasn't enough as Immanuel McElroy drilled a three-ball four seconds from the end for the winners.
Nitra are off to a 2-3 start in Slovakia with a 98-84 setback at Komarno their latest result.
The Dolphins came into the season with a chance to earn a place in the Eurocup but suffered a heavy home defeat to BC Telenet Oostende and fell in the Qualifying Round tie, 158-129 on aggregate. They have put their slow start in Europe behind them with three straight wins in Sweden, including two-point triumphs in their last couple of games against Boras and Solna.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
● Ewe Baskets Oldenburg's Bobby Brown averaged 22.5 points in the club's 2-0 start to the season.
● Fuenlabrada's Kirk Penney is a scoring machine in international basketball with New Zealand and has poured in 25, 19 and 25 points in his first three games.
● Norrköping's Sweden international Michael Lindqvist is steady, if not spectacular. He made 26 shots from behind the arc last season in the EuroChallenge while shooting 36.1% and averaged 8.5 points per game.
● The 2.10m power forward/center Ater Majok, who signed in late September, should provide Nitra with a strong presence in the paint.
DID YOU KNOW?
Bismack Biyombo, the seventh pick of June's NBA Draft by Sacramento (rights were traded to Charlotte) played for Fuenlabrada last season.
● The last time Baloncesto Fuenlabrada featured in a European competition was the 2002-03 campaign, when they played in the ULEB Cup and won just three of their 10 Regular Season games. The year before, they made it to the Quarter-Finals of the Korac Cup. Fuenlabrada had also taken part in the Korac Cup in 1999-2000 but did not advance from the Preliminary Round.
● Nitra have not played in a FIBA Europe competition before but they have made their mark in Slovakia's top flight, winning league titles in 2004, '05 and '09.
● Ewe Baskets Oldenburg have made plenty of headlines in recent campaigns, making it to the Top 16 of the EuroChallenge in 2009 and winning the German title that year. The following year, the team played in the Euroleague Regular Season and last season, they were in the Eurocup.
● Norrköping played in the Saporta Cup in 1995 and 2000, the Korac Cup in 1999, the EuroCup Challenge in 2007 and the EuroChallenge last season. The Swedish outfit won eight of its 14 games in 2010-11.