Final Four Team Preview: Dynamo Return To Final Four

07.04.2006

As challenges go, trying to win back-to-back European titles is immense.

As pressure goes, it doesn't come much greater for a club like Dynamo St Petersburg who set the standard for excellence by going undefeated in the FIBA Europe League one season ago.

That has been the same situation for Greek coach Fotis Katsikaris who, following in the footsteps of David Blatt, has managed to get his club to play its basketball of the season when it counts so they can have a chance at winning a second straight Final Four.
 

Dynamo St Petersburg Coach Fotis Katsikaris
Head coach Fotis Katsikaris has successfully guided Dynamo back to the Final Four
That was hardly a given in Round II when the Russian club was staring elimination in the face with a 1-3 record in Group I. But after the latest of a series of challenges, Dynamo fought their way to the big event in Kiev, Ukraine, where they face fellow Russians BC Khimki.

Oh yes, that's another challenge. Dynamo beat Khimki in last season's FIBA Europe League semi-finals. Don't think for a minute Khimki haven't been hoping for an opportunity all season to avenge that setback.
 
The first challenge came in the close season when the champagne on the court in Istanbul had not even dried. Blatt decided to bolt in favour of Italian powerhouses Benetton Treviso and the Euroleague.
 
Katsikaris jumped at the chance to take the reins at Dynamo after having been frustrated by the lack off spending at AEK Athens.

What was abundantly clear from the start, however, is that this year's EuroCup was a tougher competition than last year's FIBA Europe League.

DKV Joventut, for example, took part in this year's competition along with Gran Canaria.

Spain is considered by many to be the toughest domestic league in Europe and DKV are currently fourth in the ACB. They have also reached the EuroCup Final Four.

This year's tournament also has Italian representation in Vertical Vision Cantu.

Katsikaris brought a new style. He wanted the focus of Dynamo St Petersburg to be a stifling defence, whereas Blatt's team had played good defense but were best known for an open style of play.
 
Changes in the playing staff represented other hurdles for the club.

Katsikaris revamped his line-up, replacing guards Ed Cota and Jon Stefansson with Armani Jeans Milano point guard Jerry McCullough and Croatian sharpshooter Damir Miljkovic.

And the coach also hired 39-year-old center Darryl Middleton, a player who had led Panathinaikos to the 2002 Euroleague title and third place in the 2005 edition.

Middleton had also been part of the backbone of Pana teams that captured four Greek league titles.

Dynamo looked their dynamic selves early in the season, going undefeated in Round I of the EuroCup in Group A.
 
But St Petersburg were romped by 27 at home against the side they beat in the FIBA Europe League title game in 2005,  BC Kyiv, snapping their 26-game winning streak.
 
Katsikaris' team then lost at home against Fenerbahce and again against Kyiv on the road for a 1-3 record going into the final two Group I games.
 
The Russians rebounded, knocking off defending Superleague champions CSKA Moscow and that proved to be the turning point.

Dynamo star Vladimir Veremeenko, one of the holdovers from last year's title-winning side, admitted: "This win made us believe we're ready to compete and beat any opponent..."

"If we get fully concentrated and ready for each game, we'll be strong to fight for titles in each competition we take part in."

The win over CSKA created momentum.

Dynamo still looked in danger of going down at home against Czech side CEZ Nymburk in the EuroCup with the game tied 61-61 with five minutes left. But Katsikaris saw his team put on the defensive clamps and go on a 15-0 run to put the game away.

St Petersburg then needed to win at Fenerbahce by at least three points to advance. Lady Luck smiled on the team from Russia.

Fenerbahce's Jarod Stevenson, a EuroCup All-Star, missed a free throw with four seconds remaining which would have pulled the Turks to within two points. 

The 71-68 victory meant Katsikaris and his team advanced to the quarter-finals on a point-difference tie-breaker.

Captain Kelly McCarty, who was the MVP of last season's FIBA Europe League Final Four, took over in the quarters against Maroussi Honda, scoring 19 and 20 points in the two-game sweep of the Greek side. 

And McCarty and his troops are back in the final four against BC Khimki.

"That was one of our goals at the beginning of the season," McCarty said.

"To make it back to the Final Four feels great."

Who knows? Maybe McCarty and his team-mates will meet that incredible challenge they faced at the start of the year, to repeat as European champions.

As the old saying goes, sometimes it's easier to reach the top than to stay at the top.

Dynamo St Petersburg would certainly attest to that.


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