OVER THE TOP: Baltic teams will battle for 2 remaining slots in the EuroLeague.
RIGA - Zalgiris Kaunas are already guaranteed a spot in Europe’s premier club basketball competition this season and by Tuesday morning two more Baltic teams could be joining them.
To make it through to the main draw of EuroLeague and join Zalgiris, Lithuanian team Lietuvos Rytas and Latvian side VEF Riga must first endure one of the toughest qualifying competitions in professional sport. The two Baltic teams will on Thursday night join 14 other teams from across Europe who will be fighting it out for the final two spots available in the main draw, which begins on Oct. 17 when Zalgiris have the honor of hosting CSKA Moscow in the new Zalgiris Arena, which was built for the recently completed European Championships.
Over the course of Thursday and Friday, every team will face one other in a sudden death match-up with the winners going through to the final eight on Saturday. The four winners of Saturday night’s games will then meet each other on Sunday, with the two winners taking the final two spots. VEF Riga and Lietuvos Rytas have been drawn on separate sides of the draw, meaning that they can both join Zalgiris Kaunas amongst the 24 elite clubs of Europe.
For the other 14 teams who are not lucky enough to make it into EuroLeague, they will instead turn their focuses to Europe’s second strongest club competition, the EuroCup.
Since being formed in 1997 from the former Vilnius club Statyba, Lietuvos Rytas has qualified for EuroLeague on four occasions since the 2005/2006 season. But by being the bridesmaid – as they so often are to Zalgiris – in the Lithuanian domestic league competition, Lietuvos Rytas seldom have the opportunity to claim Lithuania’s one direct spot to the main draw, and instead find themselves more often than not facing the qualification process.
Lietuvos Rytas is sporting a formidable lineup this season and, after advancing to the final 16 of EuroLeague last season, the expectations of fans are that they will see their team in a similar position this year. Lietuvos Rytas has been busy in the off-season gaining a number of valuable acquisitions, amongst them American power forward Lawrence Roberts, who comes to the club with two years’ NBA experience, and impressive young center Predrag Samardziski, who was an integral member of Macedonian national team who earlier this month finished fourth at the European Championships.
Samardziski, however, is not the only player with international experience with the squad, also including Serbian point guard Aleksandar Rasic, Montenegrin guard Goran Jeretin and Australian small forward Brad Newley. That is also not to mention a wealth of homegrown talent, with the hottest young player in Lithuanian basketball, Jonas Valanciunas, also on their roster.
With the NBA player lockout continuing to drag on in the United States, Valanciunas has opted to honor the final year of his contract with Lietuvos Rytas, despite being drafted to the Toronto Raptors as the fifth overall pick in the NBA draft at the beginning of summer. Nineteen-year-old Valanciunas is coming off the summer of his life, leading his national U19 team to glory at the World Championships in Latvia where he was named as tournament MVP, before becoming an integral member of the Lithuanian senior squad that finished fifth at the European Championships. It is a fine vein of form that he will be hoping translates back to his club duties.
In their opening game, to be played at Siemens Arena in Vilnius on Thursday evening, Lietuvos Rytas take on Montenegrin club Buducnost, who last year won the Montenegro domestic competition. They have not made it past qualifying since 2003.
For VEF Riga, this week is a step into the unknown with their away game to German domestic league runners up Alba Berlin on Thursday night, the first time that they have ever had the chance to qualify for EuroLeague, despite the fact that they the oldest professional basketball team in Latvia.
The team had been disbanded for a number of decades, but was reformed in 2007, winning the Latvian national title for the first time last year to fill a position that in recent years has been dominated by Ventspils.
VEF Riga has adopted an admirable system that sees the club roster filled by four up-and-coming Latvian players and four Latvian veterans, with the remaining four spots going to foreign players.
If last season is anything to go by, it is a system that is evidently paying dividends after they knocked Lietuvos Rytas out of the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) in the semifinals before going on to win the Latvian Championship.
This season has also begun positively for the team, who has already won the 2011 Dorpat BBL Cup, which acts as a precursor to the BBL season. The team looked particularly formidable in the final as they easily knocked over Estonian club University of Tartu, 95-69, even without their star American signing, Tyler Sims, who only arrived in Latvia hours after the win.
Sims, who will play the center position, will go some way to filling the boots of Belarusian Artsiom Parahouski, who the club was unable to retain after his outstanding form last season attracted the attention of clubs with far deeper pockets.
Despite the limited time that the globetrotting Sims will have to get to know his teammates ahead of Thursday’s crucial clash, VEF head coach Ramunas Butautas told TBT that he expects him to be ready. “Off course he needs time to acclimatize and to get to know his teammates. But he is 28 years old and already has experience playing European basketball and I hope he will play a big part for us this week.”