By Jeff Taylor, PA Sport
Fotis Katsikaris admits he feared the worst when Dynamo St Petersburg lost on January 17 at BC Kyiv.
It was the club's third defeat in Round II of the EuroCup and with just one victory, that 63-61 setback made Dynamo, last year's FIBA Europe League winners, look dead in the water.
"I cannot lie," Katsikaris told PA Sport. "After we lost in Kyiv, our possibilities were limited.
|Dynamo Coach Fotis Katsikaris with Grygorii Khizhniak |
"I remember saying at a press conference that it looked like we were out of the play-offs."
But, he says, you never know in basketball.
"That's why it's so exciting," Katsikaris said. "Other results gave us possibilities.
"Going into the last game, we had luck in our hands.
"We had played two bad games at home, losing to Kyiv and Fenerbahce, but we were mentally and psychologically ready for that last game against Fenerbahce."
On the same court where Katsikaris had led AEK Athens to victory over Efes Pilsen in the Euroleague Top 16 last year but failed to advance to the quarter-final round in a tie-breaker format, Dynamo won by three points over Fener and beat them on a tie-break to reach the last eight.
Katsikaris' Big Move
Katsikaris had a tough act to follow in Russia.
David Blatt had coached the team through an undefeated season in Europe en route to the title before leaving for Benetton Treviso.
It was a big decision for Katsikaris to leave Greece.
He had been at AEK nearly his entire professional life. He played there for six years.
"I am happy in St Petersburg because first of all, I am with a team that is very close as far as the philosophy and structure of the team like AEK," he said.
"There are good young players and there is good chemistry. Secondly, I am participating in a very strong and difficult league (Russian Superleague) against good coaches and good teams.
"There is a lot of travel and difficult conditions, as far as travelling. The schedule, it's like the NBA. Mentally we have to be ready every time."
The professional challenge was everything to the 39-year-old Katsikaris. He may never have left AEK had that club shared his ambition.
"I'm working for a better tomorrow," he said, "We didn't have the same goals.
"That's why I quit and took this risk."
Winters are cold and dark in St Petersburg, but the city and the challenge of coaching in Russia has made the move worth it.
"It's a very new experience for me for sure, working out of my country," he said.
"I'm very lucky because I'm living and working in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
"As far as the day-to-day living, with my family here, it's great.
"My daughter is 10 and my son is six, and they attend American school."
Katsikaris, who is under contract for another season, learned very early in his career what it took to be successful.
"Defense is the name of the game," he said.
"And one thing I have to say is that we don't play dirty defense. There is a big difference.
"We don't try to destroy the game. We play good defense with correct rotations and want to quickly get into the offense.
"I have very good athletes in my team and try to use that in my team.
"With a good defense, you feel more confidence."
There are good days and bad days when it comes to hitting your shots.
If you can shut down your opponents, it doesn't matter what you do on offense.
"On a bad shooting day, good defense can give you the win," he said.
"This is something that we do."
Dynamo appear to be at their best right now.
They had an important win over CSKA Moscow while they were still in Round II of the EuroCup and that confidence-boosting win built a momentum that is still carrying Katsikaris and his players.
"We are in a very good shape right now and I just hope until the Final Four that we don't have any injuries," Katsikaris said.
"We just have to hope.
"My players are looking forward to playing in the Final Four.
"We have worked very hard and went through a very difficult situation during the groups.
"It's an excellent challenge for us, participating with three tough and big competitors."
DKV Joventut of Spain take on hosts BC Kyiv in the other semi-final.
St Petersburg will like their chances against Khimki in the EuroCup semi-final, even though their Russian opponents boast experienced players.
Big man Ruben Wolkowisky won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina and point guard Gianmarco Pozzecco claimed silver with Italy.
Oscar Torres of Venezuela and Melvin Booker of the US are huge talents.
They have many more outstanding hoopsters.
"They are an offensive oriented team," Katsikaris said.
"They have a big rotation and with talent and experience.
"They have players with the correct chemistry, players with big personality who can decide the game and that makes them a very, very strong contenders."
Katsikaris does not expect Dynamo's victory over Khimki in last year's FIBA Europe League Final Four to have any bearing on the game.
"I always believe every game is different," he said. "I personally don't believe in those kind of things. Every game has different strategy and different preparation.
"We played two times already against Khimki in the league, we know them and they know us. The most important thing is the psychological preparation."
And, without question, since there are numerous players that tasted that success one year ago who are still with Dynamo, they should know how to mentally prepare for the Final Four.
"It's very important for me to have players with this background," Katsikaris said.
"One of the main reasons why I brought Darryl Middleton here is the winning spirit and the professionalism.
"It's a blessing to have winners in your team, to know what to do and to have people ready to take on responsibility."
Katsikaris doesn't know if or when he will return to Greece to coach again.
"I want the Greek league to be competitive like it used to be," he said.
"It's not a weak league, but there are teams with financial problems.
"It's good that Olimpiacos are good again."
Olympiacos have qualified for the quarter-finals of the Euroleague.
"At this moment," he said, "I'm just focusing on my work here. It was a big decision to leave AEK and test myself abroad."
The ultimate test is in April at the EuroCup Final Four in Kiev.