VILNIUS - In the final weekend of the Baltic Basketball League regular season, Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas clinched first place when they defeated Nevezis Keidainiai, who surprisingly secured sixth place. Rytas will be top seed for the upcoming Final six tournament being played this weekend in Tallinn.
The BBL Final six tournament will pit the top six of 17 teams in the pan-Baltic league and is set to begin in Tallinn's Saku Arena on April 14. The third place and championship game will take place on April 16. But for all those home fans looking for an Estonian team to win it all, they'll have to wait for next year.
In its second year of existence, the BBL is trying something new with their six-team format, as opposed to the standard four teams used last year. There are four Lithuanian and two Latvian teams in the tournament.
With a 31 's 1 record, Lietuvos Rytas finished the season at the top of the BBL and Lithuanian Basketball League final standings. They have been in devastating form as of late, beating last year's BBL champions and country rivals Kaunas Zalgiris by 30 points on March 25. Their only BBL and LKL loss was a Dec. 17 defeat to second place Kaunas. Starting Latvian point guard Roberts Stelmahers is still out with a thigh injury, but Rytas will be happy to have Haris Mujezinovic back after more than four weeks out with injury.
Zalgiris, on the other hand, may be at full strength physically but have been playing terrible basketball lately. Six losses in the European competition, plus the embarrassing loss to Lietuvos Rytas and a change of coaches has taken a serious psychological toll on the BBL champions.
Former Zalgiris player, and one of Latvia's basketball greats, Ainars Bagatskis has taken over the coaching job after leaving his role as player-coach for the Riga Barons. As a way to build team unity and get away from the distractions of home, Bagatskis took his team to the Lithuanian coast for four days to train and strategize. Also 31-1 in BBL competition, Kaunas is second seed by virtue of point differential with Rytas.
Ventspils represents Latvia's greatest chance for success and is currently third. One of the strongest teams in Latvia for many years, they have not lost this season to a Latvian side but have lost seven to teams from Lithuania. Last year, Ventspils was upset when they lost the third place game to Siauliai.
"From the Latvian teams, Ventspils has the best chance to get to the final, but I still believe a Lithuanian team will win. When I used to play for Ventspils, we never managed to beat the Lithuanian teams," said Lietuvos Rytas guard Sandis Buskevics, who is also a native and former player of Ventspils.
In the first game starting at 16:30 on April 14, Ventspils will take on Lithuania's Nevezis Kedainiai, who snuck into sixth place on the final weekend of the regular season. Siauliai in fourth place will play against Latvia's fifth seeded Riga Barons starting at 19:00. The winners of the early game will take on Kaunas Zalgiris on April 15 at 16:00 while the late game winners will play Lietuvos Rytas at 18:30.
The third place and championship game will take place on April 16 at 14:30 and 17:15 respectively.
"I hope Ventspils will win, but we all know Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas are very strong Euroleague teams," said Ventspils guard Marijonas Petravicius.