By Jeff Taylor
|So long and thanks for the memories: Deron Williams has returned to New Jersey after scoring 50 points in his last game in the EuroChallenge with Besiktas|
A riveting EuroChallenge Regular Season was completed this week and only 16 teams remain in the hunt for the title.
The competition has had a little bit of everything.
There has been an international superstar in Deron Williams, two unbeaten teams (Besiktas Milangaz and EWE Baskets Oldenburg), players coming of age like Triumph Lyubertsy's Sergey Karasev, sharpshooters like Antwerp's Michael Roll, buzzer-beating heroes (BK Prostejov's Jamar Smith and Chalon's Abdul Aminu) and surprise packages like ZZ Leiden.
The biggest splash of all was made by Williams of Besiktas Milangaz, when he scored 50 points in his last EuroChallenge game against BG Göttingen on 22nd November before returning to the New Jersey Nets after the end of the NBA lockout.
Besiktas were so enthralled with Williams's presence in the team that they raised his jersey to the rafters of their arena, the ultimate honour for a player who spent just a few months with the club.
Even without Williams, Besiktas, who suffered a major collapse in a Eurocup Qualifying Round tie with Dexia Mons Hainaut, have proved to be very good.
The team finished top of Group B with a perfect 6-0 record.
EXCELLENT EWE BASKETS OLDENBURG
The only other unbeaten team in the competition is EWE Baskets Oldenburg and that mark is especially impressive when considering the German team swept Fuenlabrada.
There is not much to dislike about EWE Baskets.
The team has great balance on offense with seven players averaging nine points or more.
Kenny Hasbrouck is pouring in 11.2 and Milan Majstorovic 9.8.
Rickey Paulding (9.2), Ronald Burrell, Robin Smeulders (both 9.0), Dominik Bahiense de Mello (8.5) and Sead Sehovic (7.5) are all contributing.
Predrag Krunic's team shares the ball.
THE LEIDEN REVELATION
Of all the teams still alive in the EuroChallenge, Leiden must be considered the biggest surprise.
While the Netherlands has produced some very good players over the years, including the 'Dunking Dutchman' Rik Smits of Indiana Pacers fame and big men Francisco Elson and Dan Gadzuric, the country is not a hotbed of hoops.
|ZZ Leiden are probably the biggest surprise in the Last 16 and their young Dutch players like Worthy De Jong are gaining valuable experience|
Needing a win of more than three points this week at home against Armia, Leiden flat out hammered the Georgian club 76-59 with Seamus Boxley's 17 points and 10 rebounds leading the way.
Now Leiden find themselves in another tough situation in Group I.
"In terms of budget, the team is in an even more of a David among the Goliaths situation than in the first round," club chairman Marcel Verburg said.
A word to the wise - do not take Leiden lightly.
CLOSE GAME SPECIALISTS
Elan Chalon gave their fans a couple of heart-stopping wins the past two weeks to go into the Last 16 of the EuroChallenge as the Group E winners.
The French club, following last week's one-point victory over BC Enisey, won 79-78 at Antwerp on Tuesday.
In a battle of 4-1 teams, Chalon won after a late steal and three-pointer by 24-year-old center Abdul Aminu.
Gregor Beugnot, the Chalon coach, was keen to emphasize: "We only won by a miracle."
Tributes must go out to Szolnoki, who travelled to Cyprus needing a victory over Keravnos and got it.
Obie Trotter has been one of the leading players in the EuroChallenge the past couple of seasons and he had 22 points for Szolnoki on Tuesday.
Julien Mills was also immense with 16 points and 10 rebounds as the Hungarians prevailed, 91-82.
Keravnos led until late in the third quarter.
Both teams finished 3-3 in Group H but Szolnoki clinched second spot after sweeping their two encounters.
Okapi Aalstar also needed a victory in their game against the other team from Cyprus in the EuroChallenge, ETHA, and won 89-73.
Kevin Kruger buried four of his seven shots from long range on the night and finished with 20 points.
That result left both teams with 3-3 records but Okapi advanced as the second-placed team behind Triumph (4-2) by virtue of a season sweep of ETHA.
Speaking of Triumph, Sergey Karasev emerged as a big-time player.
A week after scoring 21 points against Olin Edirne, Karasev buried a three-ball in the waning seconds at Okapi Aalstar for an 84-83 victory.
BC Minsk-2006 didn't survive Group G with a 3-3 record but at least they signed off in thrilling fashion this week.
Aliaksei Lashkevich hit a game-winning jump shot with just two seconds to go on Tuesday as BC Minsk-2006 edged Türk Telekom, 78-76.
Türk Telekom battled, but weren't the force they had been when Mehmet Okur had been in the squad.
|Michael Roll is on a roll, quite literally. The Antwerp Giants made it into the Last 16 thanks in no small part to a huge offensive contribution by the American guard forward|
Okur, like Williams, returned to America following the NBA lockout.
Group L in the Last 16 is likely to be full of close games.
When it comes to Antwerp, Michael Roll has been huge!
He leads the team in scoring at 20.2 points per game.
Roll is shooting a scintillating 14 of 23 (60.9%) from long range and also leads the team in assists at 4.2.
Antwerp's 25-year-old center Salah Mejri is also living up to the hype.
The Afrobasket 2011 MVP after leading Tunisia to gold and into the London Olympics, Mejri's 8.8 rebounds and two blocks per contest are the best averages for the Giants in the EuroChallenge.
The only player to have been more prolific in the shot-blocking category has been Joakim Kjellbom of Armia with 2.3. per contest.
Kjellbom and Armia, however, did not advance to the Last 16.
MAKING THOSE FREE-THROWS
When it comes to BK Ventspils, Gundars Vetra has a couple of players that he wants to have the ball at the end of close games.
Jahmar Young and Bojan Bakic have each hit 27 of their 30 attempts at the free-throw line in Europe this season for a red-hot 90%.
Free-throw shooting is one area of the game that Mejri needs substantial improvement in.
He ranks dead last at 40.9% (nine of 22).
Fuenlabrada will be hoping that Mouhamed Sene improves in that department as well because he has converted just 15 of 27 (55.6%).
Chalon have been the best free-throw shooting team in the EuroChallenge at 77.8%.
The worst was BC Goverla at 62.4%.
Can teams that don't shoot free-throws well win games?
Well, Goverla certainly did not. They went 0-6 in Group C.
In their latest loss, a 77-76 defeat at home to Pardubice, Goverla did improve at the line by making 13 of 18 (72.2%) but still went down to defeat.
Pardubice would not have claimed that vital win had they not made 18 of 21 (85.7%) at the line.
Corey Muirhead sank two free-throws with a second to go to lift Pardubice to the victory that allowed them to clinch second place in Group C.
When it comes to racking up double-doubles, Telekom Baskets Bonn's Jared Jordan has been second to none.
The 27-year-old point guard is averaging 12.2 points and 10 assists per contest.
Jordan had four double-doubles in the Regular Season.
There was also tragedy to affect one of the clubs in the EuroChallenge this season, 2010 champions BG Göttingen.
On 30th October, after the team's away game in the BEKO BBL, Marco Grimaldi's long-time girlfriend and his youngster sister were killed in an automobile accident.
The girlfriend of Kyle Bailey, another Göttingen player, was in the same car but survived.