VILNIUS - Whilst other Baltic basketball teams have been experiencing at best tumultuous seasons, one has been going about their work quietly without too much fanfare and may be about to reap the benefits. When you come from a country where basketball is deemed religion and the most famous club in that country is run by an outspoken Russian-born businessman with a penchant for attracting media attention, it is not too difficult to slip relatively unnoticed under the radar.
From the early season firing of their coach Dejuan Collins, being sent home prior to a game drunk, their acquisition of U.S. college bad boy Reeves Nelson, to their inability to win a game in the final 16 of the Euroleague, Zalgiris Kaunas has not left a lot of room in the headlines for their closest rivals Lietuvos Rytas, despite the latter having Jonas Valanciunas, a player who was recently ranked by NBA managers as the best player not currently plying his trade in North America.
The Vilnius-based club’s season hardly got of to the best of starts, with the club failing to make it through the qualifying round to play in Europe’s elite club competition, the Euroleague.
However, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining and that has certainly been the case for Lietuvos Rytas. Since their disappointment of missing out on a place in the Euroleague, the club has been going about their work quietly, showing a consistency that is lacking from the likes of Zalgiris and top Latvian club Ventspils, to earn themselves a quarter-final spot in the Russian-based VTB League and, more importantly, a quarter-final berth in the Eurocup, the competition in which the team was resigned to playing in after failing to qualify for the Euroleague.
A place in Europe’s top-tier competition would have, no doubt, brought financial reward for the supposedly cash-strapped club, but the team’s chances of even coming close to making the Final Four with their current roster would have been fanciful thinking and required nothing short of a small miracle.
Instead, the team sits in the far more realistic position of regaining the Eurocup, which they last won back in 2009 prior to spending two seasons in the Euroleague.
The financial windfall that went begging in the club’s failure to make it into Europe’s top club competition has now been somewhat overcome by the fact that the team’s time in Europe has been arguably longer than what could have been expected from the red and blacks, were they playing in the Euroleague, therefore, meaning increased gate revenue with every home game played past the group stage. Losing just two games to date this season in Europe, Aleksandar Dzikic’s team now go into their home and away quarter-final series starting at Siemens Arena on March 20, confident of advancing to the Final Four, despite their opponents, BC Donetsk, also holding a 10-win, two-loss record.
Lithuanian basketball journalist Simas Baranauskas believes that central to overcoming their Ukrainian opponents is the gameplay of Valanciunas. Following a 2011 full of highs in which the 19-year-old center was picked up fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the NBA draft, lead his team to victory at the U19 World Championship in Latvia with a tournament MVP performance before becoming an integral member of the Lithuanian senior team at the European Championships, Valanciunas, by his own high standard, had a less than productive return to club duties.
However, in the round of 16 in the Eurocup, the 2.10 m youngster has returned to his best form, improving his point average compared to group play, from 8.5 to 13.2 and his rebounds a night from 6.2 to 9.3.
“If Jonas Valanciunas continues to provide an inside threat as he has done in the Top 16,” Baranauskas informed The Baltic Times, “it will be a massive boost for Rytas, as they missed Jonas’ presence in the beginning of the season.” The lithuaniabasketball.com journalist believes that another key area for Lietuvos Rytas is in the point guard position, where the club from the Lithuanian capital is spoiled for choice with two leading guards in American Tyrese Rice and Serbian Aleksandar Rasic.
“If Rasic is making shots and Rice manages to keep himself and the game in control, Rytas should cruise to victory,” is the belief held by Baranauskas.
Interestingly, BC Donetsk have also been suffering from a similar problem to Zalgiris this season: playing consistently.
“Obviously, Rytas have seen their ups and downs as well,” Baranauskas said, “but I feel that they’ve got a base in place when it comes to just playing their game and executing at a higher level.”
The return leg of their clash with Donetsk will be played in Ukraine on March 27 with a greater aggregate score over the course of both legs required to see last season’s Lithuanian domestic league runners-up advance to the Final Four, set to be played in Khimki, Moscow on April 14 and 15.
The quarter-finals of the VTB League begin in April whilst next week Lietuvos Rytas will also enter the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) at the quarter-final stage. Closer to home, the club is currently leading the Lithuanian league.