|Anna Petrakova and Dynamo Kursk dominated the Regular Season in impressive fashion, but Horizont might still have a chance to upset them if certain things go their way|
Sixteen EuroCup Women teams are preparing to do battle this week as they launch their bid to grab a quarter-final ticket.
In part one of his preview, Paul Nilsen checks out eight contenders in a tournament which has, so far at least, been dominated by the presence of clubs from Turkey and France.
But will this trend continue as the tournament continues to unfold?
It was a tough task for Dexia Namur to make the Eighth Finals after they had to sweat it out right until the last moment and now they face an uphill task to reach the quarter-finals and beyond.
For star player Ifunanya Ibekwe who not only led the team in scoring, rebounding and steals but who has also been one of the standout players in the tournament, decided not to return to Belgium after the winter break.
While the experienced Biljana Pavicevic has been drafted in as a replacement, head coach Dan Goethals has work to do to integrate his new recruit and get his team believing they can progress without their reference player.
Dexia Namur also has a tough task since Hainaut Basket is full of confidence having beaten French league leaders Challes-les-Eaux over the weekend with 28 points by Lithuanian Marina Solopova who will continue to be a big threat.
The French club is strong in most areas and has huge experience in the likes of Petra Stampalija who is having an excellent season with a near double-double of 14.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
Even more impressively, the Croatian is showcasing she is more than just strength under the basket by leading her team in assists with a super 3.3 per game.
Also going in favour of Hainaut Basket is that they lead the competition in steals with Amisha Carter having averaged 3.6 per game - more than any other player in EuroCup Women - so Dexia Namur will have to cope with the defensive pressure.
There will be at least one French team guaranteed a place in the last eight this year due to this all-French affair. While last year's finalists Arras have the higher seeding, their relatively new look team is struggling in the lower reaches of the French league with a 6-8 record while Basket Landes are slightly better off in mid-table with an 8-6 record.
It promises to be a fascinating tie. Both teams met each other domestically way back on the first weekend of the new season with Arras routing their opponent by 25 points and this may give them a boost. Basket Landes has been bolstered by the arrival of former EuroLeague Women All Star Justyna Zurowska who joins from Lotos Gdynia.
The main difference between the teams in EuroCup Women this season has been the sharp perimeter shooting of Arras and mainly Joye Cousseins and Gabriela Marginean. Basket Landes meanwhile has been pretty poor from the arc.
Arras possess one of the most interesting players around right now, in the form of Nadezda Grishaeva whose season double-double could see her potentially having an outside chance of landing a spot on the Russian Olympic team if her good form continues. She will be going for her fifth double digit game in a row while she has also accumulated two double-doubles in her last three games.
It's not just the seedings which suggest there is a big gulf in the capabilities of these respective teams but also the fact that Dynamo Kursk has been one of the favourites since the season tipped off and nothing which has happened since has done anything but reaffirm this notion.
|Nadezda Grishaeva is averaging double digits in points and rebounds and is one of Arras's main weapons in the all-French battle with Landes|
Antatoli Buyalski will have to call upon his vast experience with the Belarus national team to ensure his BC Horizont team is competitive and at least get themselves in a position within the tie to perhaps pull off what would be a big surprise, although the Minsk club did show their teeth with some strong displays last season.
Even attempting to slay Kursk looks (on paper at least) to be an unenviable task but since basketball isn't played on paper, anything is possible and especially if the prolific Natallia Anufryienka gets the hot-hand for Horizont.
The fourth highest scorer in EuroCup Women this season, she has fired her team into the last sixteen of the tournament and it's a number with relevance since so far this season, she has never scored less than 16 points in any game she has played.
Belarus national team-mate Tatyana Troina is doing her best to lend support by leading the team in rebounding, assists and steals as well as adding 13.5 points per game while Aleksandra Khomenchuk is the fourth best shot blocker in the tournament.
As for the Russian club, it's been a very strong season both in EuroCup Women and domestically where they are chasing powerhouse duo Sparta&K Moscow Region Vidnoje and UMMC Ekaterinburg very hard indeed in the Russian league. They are currently in third spot with an excellent 8 and 2 record.
In EuroCup Women, they simply breezed through the group phase to top the tournament charts in points scored, rebounding and assists.
Michelle Snow continues to be a leader for this Kursk team and is averaging a season double-double of 14.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game while Lithuanian national team star Ausra Bimbaite is also enjoying a strong campaign.
Anna Petrakova has justified the club's decision to prize her away from Chevakata last summer by exploding this year with some terrific performances, which have seen her harvest 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Most importantly of all, Petrakova has showed her ability to step outside and drain three-pointers with great consistency.
Like Dynamo Kursk, Botas Spor are another team yet to taste defeat in the competition so far this season. The Turkish club is having a mixed campaign in the sense they are not exactly flying domestically with a 5-7 record, but there has been no stopping them in EuroCup Women.
Courtney Paris, Monica Wright, Quianna Chaney and Marina Kress provide some real quality and have shown this with some top performances while the Turkish players have also contributed in a big way via veteran Nilay Karteltepe, national team player Naile Ivegin and exciting young shooter Burcu Cigil.
Paris and Kress have been powerful in the paint, Karteltepe has pulled the strings as playmaker and Chaney has had huge impact with her all round skills and versatility contributing 17.3 points, 3.3 assists and 3 rebounds per game.
USO Mondeville are in the top four of the French League and head into this game with some momentum having crushed EuroLeague Women strugglers Tarbes over the weekend.
They have brought former Wisla Can Pack and EuroLeague Women Final Four player Katerina Zohnova to France who played the first part of EuroCup Women this season with Maccabi Bnot Ashdod.
Mondeville couldn't get near to reigning champions Elitzur Ramla during qualification for the Eighth Finals and consequently Herve Coudray will know they have to bridge a gap and improve significantly in order to progress and give themselves a chance of fighting for the title - starting against Botas.
An injury to the likes of Lithuanian national team player Egle Sulciute hasn't helped the French club this season but nevertheless, they could just cause something of an upset if they can produce the kind of performance they have been showing on home soil each week in the French league.
So far at least, the team has had a very distinct seven-player main rotation in the competition and moving forward much will continue to rest on the shoulders of guard Kristen Sharp and also the powerful Laetitia Kamba and Naignouma Coulibaly inside who will have to handle Paris and Kress.
Meanwhile Lithuanian rising star Giedre Paugaite is yet to fully realise her enormous potential but is a player who remains important to the team and isn't just about numbers and productivity.
Certainly you get the sense this clash may not neccessarily be the huge mismatch which the respective rankings would suggest.