By Jeff Taylor
|Okapi Aalstar forward Christopher Copeland is the top scorer in the Belgian Ethias League, with 22.2 points per game |
Generali Okapi Aalstar have a lot of reasons to believe they will be the latest Belgian club to make headlines in the EuroChallenge.
This is, after all, the team that finished runners-up in the domestic competition in 2010-11 and already this season, the Aalst outfit has upset Charleroi - the Belgian team playing in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague.
The coach, Bradley Dean, is "the total package" according to club sporting director Frank Van Inpe.
There is also the new point guard, Kevin Kruger, a player that is making a positive impact in the early part of the campaign.
There are plenty of other reasons to be hopeful going into the EuroChallenge, yet the approach is one of cautious optimism.
"First of all, we're going to try and win a game because we have not been successful doing that in two years in the EuroChallenge," Van Inpe said to Basketball World News.
"I do hope we win some games, though, and advance to the next round."
No team in Europe is going to win with a bad coach.
Dean, rest assured, is very good at his craft.
He also leads Sweden's national team and this summer, he guided them to four straight wins in their Division B campaign.
"He's like a master of chess and always thinks a move ahead," Van Inpe said.
"He's like a basketball professor to me."
Then there is the coach on the floor, Kruger - the son of well known American coach Lon Kruger, who was at the head of the Atlanta Hawks from 2000-03 and is coaching Oklahoma in the NCAA at present.
"I can say that he is almost a perfect fit for our team," Van Inpe said of Kevin Kruger.
"We really needed a true point guard, like an extension of the coach on the court, and that's how he is.
"He knows about basketball, gets the ball to the right player at the right time and that's a sign of a good point guard."
Kruger also says the right thing at the right time.
"He talks basketball, he thinks basketball, he breathes basketball," Van Inpe said.
"After the Charleroi game, we had weightlifting the next morning and he said, 'We didn't learn a lot yesterday after beating Charleroi. We learned a lot three weeks ago in the loss at Leuven. It's after losing games that you learn.'
"The rest of the team, some guys really opened their eyes," Van Inpe said.
In Group F, Okapi will face Triumph Lyubertsy, ETHA Engomi and Olin Edirne.
First up will be a road game against Triumph.
"Next week in Moscow for our first league game, that's going to be a real test because I saw two weeks ago in their first league game, they lost by only five to CSKA," Van Inpe said.
"That's a very good result, so I don't know about them.
"But once we've met them all at least once, then maybe we can change our ambition."
Triumph had to beat Krasnye Krylia over two legs in the Qualifying Round to make it into this season's EuroChallenge.
Coached by 1988 Olympic Champion, 1982 World Champion and twice European Champion as a player Valdemaras Chomicius, also an assistant coach on the Lithuania national team, Triumph rolled to a 94-71 first-leg triumph over Enisey and advanced, despite falling in the second, 80-74.
|American forward Jerry Jefferson was Triumph Lyubertsy's top scorer and rebounder in the Qualifying Round tie with Enisey |
The team has lost promising center Pavel Spiridonov for four months to a knee injury, with the 20-year-old having just had an operation.
Turkish outfit Olin Edirne have recently bolstered their line-up with Fatih Solak, a former national team center.
Solak was on the books of Turk Telekom last season when they competed in the EuroChallenge.
Another player with EuroChallenge experience, Luka Drezga, has also just penned a deal with the team.
Drezga played for Khimik in 2010-11 and 2008-09, he was on the books of KK Zagreb.
The club has also signed Reha Oz.
Oline Edirne have one win in their first three games in Turkey's top flight, although the last team to beat them was Anadolou Efes.
"Soon we'll be able to compete with all the teams," promised coach Gokhan Tastimur.
"The situation is better now. There was a perception that as if things were going bad and I'm responsible for this perception.
"I had concerns but now we must get rid of the negative atmosphere.
"The losses were against Euroleague teams, Anadolu Efes and Galatasaray Medical Park."
They next face Tofas Bursa.
Last but certainly not least is ETHA, a team that has already been through the wars this season.
The Cypriot team had a very tough draw in the Eurocup Qualifying Round and faced Spartak Saint-Petersburg.
After falling 60-59 at home, ETHA hit the road and lost 83-64 in Russia.
- Okapi Aalstar are flying at the top of the Belgian top flight with four wins in their first five games and they have also qualified for the Belgian Cup Quarter-Finals.
- Triumph Lyubertsy lost in their only game in the Russian PBL to CSKA, 73-68, but did lead for much of that contest. They won on aggregate in their Qualifying Round tie against Krasnye Krylia to reach the EuroChallenge. Triumph are also playing in the Baltic League and gone 1-1 so far.
- Olin Edirne go into their game against Tofas with a 1-2 record.
- ETHA didn't win either of their Qualifying Round games for the Eurocup against Sparta Saint-Petersburg but their 88-72 triumph over Omonia at the weekend has the club 3-0 in their domestic league.
- Okapi Aalstar's Kevin Kruger must deliver big time at the playmaker position if the club is going to stop the rot in the EuroChallenge.
- Triumph Lyubertsy's Victor Zvarykin is a perimeter threat, something he showed when making four of seven shots from long range in the recent game against CSKA Moscow. He averaged 10.5 points in the two Qualifying Round games against Krasnye Krylia.
- Kenvarrios Tutt averaged almost 12 points and four assists last season in the EuroChallenge for ETHA.
- Opponents cannot leave Wesley Wilkinson open. The Olin Edirne forward drilled four three-balls against Efes.
Did You Know?
Sergey Karasev is a rising star in Russia and plays for Triumph. His father, Vasily Karasev, is the former national team point guard of Russia who is an assistant coach of Triumph.
- Okapi have gone 0-8 the past two seasons in the EuroChallenge. They fell in all six of their outings in the 2009-10 campaign and then last year, they lost both legs of their Qualifying Round tie last season to Norrköping Dolphins. The Swedish team edged them 85-84 in Scandinavia and then 86-79 in Belgium.
- ETHA won three of their eight games in last season's EuroChallenge. The club also competed in the 2005 FIBA Europe Cup.
- Triumph Lyubertsy played in the EuroChallenge 2008-09 campaign and reached the Final Four that was staged in Bologna and ended up third. Last season, they split their two Qualifying Round games but failed to win on aggregate and missed the Regular Season.
- Olin Edirne are making their maiden voyage in Europe. The team reached the Quarter-Finals of last season's Turkish play-offs.