By Paul Nilsen
|Sonja Petrovic and her Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje teammates are a force to be reckoned with this season|
Former four-time EuroLeague Women champions Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje look set for another Final Eight appearance and even another tilt at the prestigious title they once dominated.
Whilst they can no longer depend on the same level of astronomical budget handed to them when the clubs' former President, Shabtai von Kalmanovich was still alive, they have not fallen too far from grace having recruited smartly during the last couple of seasons.
They also have the benefit of being coached by the outstanding Pokey Chatman, which has kept them competing for the podium and in combination with an impressive roster, they will once again be one of the teams to beat.
Retaining their best players continues to be a real strength and they have also cast their net wide when it comes to signing the best young players in Europe too. They now boast two FIBA Young Player Of The Year winners in Nika Baric who was signed last summer and Emma Meesseman who recently penned a deal but will spend the next few seasons on loan in France.
According to General Manager Steve Costalas, the ethos remains the same - don't complicate things and always to look to the future.
He said, "Often in cooking, the best recipe is very simple. So was the Sparta&K recipe of building this year's team - we kept from last season those players who we believed could improve, with the addition of a couple of good players.
"We kept seven players from last season (of which four were starters) and then we brought back Natalia Vieru and Ekaterina Ruzanova before adding Elisa Aguilar, Isabelle Yacoubou and Elena Kharchenko.
"Needless to say, even the best recipe needs a good chef and once more, we have Pokey Chatman and her coaching staff.
"At the same time, we have kept true to our club philosophy which is both producing players and investing in the future."
And, the club could have a significant return on that investment with Natalia Vieru back from her hugely successful loan spell with Good Angels Kosice where she was excellent last year. She will compete for court time in a stacked frontcourt which includes EuroLeague Women champion and recent Olympic silver medalist Isabelle Yacoubou and also Elena Kharchenko who impressed with WBC Dynamo Moscow in the EuroCup Women last season.
This is further complimented by a terrific trio in the form of Candice Dupree, Sonja Petrovic and Marina Kuzina. All are quality and in the case of Petrovic, she can (and probably will be) employed most of the time in the small forward position which gives Sparta&K real size.
Not that the backcourt is much different with an absolute wealth of experience, irrepressible leadership and veteran skills in the shape of Becky Hammon and also new arrival Elisa Aguilar.
Young pretender Nika Baric meanwhile is likely to be even better having had a debut season under her belt, Ekaterina Ruzanova brings further depth after making the switch from Nadezhda but it is the influence of Seimone Augustus and the deadly shooting of Evgenia Beliakova which could be vital.
Augustus remains the main scoring threat for Sparta&K while Beliakova is one of the deadliest long-range snipers around and has been buoyed by her recent Olympic exploits in London.
"Four players of Sparta&K defended the honour of the national team at the Olympics and that is without doubt, a big advantage for our club" she said.
"After the Olympics, we have nothing to fear. Participation in a tournament of such level is a priceless experience for every player.
|Evgenia Belyakova will try to profit from the Olympic experience when wearing the Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje vest again|
"I think Pokey Chatman followed the Olympic tournament and made some conclusions considering the Russian players and I hope I will also be able to fully use my Olympic experience to do as well for Sparta&K as I possibly can!"
She continued, "Our team has stayed 70% the same, and it's great. We already have some combinations from last season, and now some great players will make Sparta&K even stronger.
"We hope for help under the hoop from our centres Natalia Vieru and Isabelle Yacoubou since we missed this position last season!
"Thanks to our reliable defence we can also play more aggressive in offence. And such an experienced playmaker as Elisa Aguilar is a big advantage
"Sonja Petrovic will come back to Sparta&K after her WNBA season with great experience and so in general, I expect more positive from the upcoming season than we had last season."
Just listening to both Costalas and Belyakova highlighting the respective strengths of Sparta&K underlines exactly why they could and probably should reach the Final Eight - and maybe even the last four of the competition.