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RIGA - Basketball in the Baltics will have a different feel to it this winter with the Baltic-wide Baltic Basketball League (BBL) debuting in October under a completely new format. Since first appearing on the Baltic basketball scene in the winter of 2004/2005, the BBL has undergone a number of changes, but perhaps none are as revolutionary as those made during the summer of 2012.
In its infancy, the competition ran without any major opposition or threat from opposing tournaments with top Lithuanian teams Lietuvos Rytas and Zalgiris Kaunas systematically dominating the regular season and playoffs, with the two BBL clubs sharing every BBL title to date. Given the early positive signs, a second division, the Challenge Cup, was added to the calendar in 2007/2008.
However, in the winter of 2010/2011, the BBL suffered their first direct threat when the cash-heavy VTB League was launched across the border in Russia. Promoting itself as a competition for the best teams from throughout Eastern Europe (almost exclusively former communist states), Lietuvos Rytas and Zalgiris both made the call to cut the BBL regular season from their calendars and instead focus on the Lithuanian domestic league (LKL), their European campaigns (Euroleague and Eurocup), and the VTB League. As a concession, it was agreed that the clubs would join the BBL at the quarter-final stage, effectively the first step in undermining the BBL’s credibility.
A season later and the situation worsened, with Latvian club VEF Riga, demanding the same treatment afforded to the two Lithuanian superpowers, leaving a situation in which the Baltic’s top three clubs were gifted direct entry to the playoffs.
There was also a major issue at the other end of the competition in the traditional end-of-season promotion/relegation games. The Challenge Cup has recently been dominated by Lithuanian teams, whilst it has ultimately been Latvian and Estonian teams finishing in the bottom positions of the Elite Division. Come the promotion/relegation games, the challengers from the second division were more often than not winning, leaving the Elite Division to begin to somewhat resemble the LKL.
With no immediate resolution to bringing the three clubs back into the fore for the regular season and a way to avoid the Elite Division looking more like the LKL in every season passing, the BBL has now undergone a major overhaul. This season, the league has got rid of the Challenge Cup with 23 teams instead competing for the Elite Division title. The 23 clubs (nine Lithuanian, eight Estonian, five Latvian and one Kazakhstani) have been divided into four groups: three with six teams and one with five. Every team will play each other in a home-and-away format. The top four teams from each group will then move onto the second round, and once more be split into four groups, with everyone again competing in a home-and-away format.
For the quarter-finals and semi-finals, the home-and-away format remains, with the team producing the best aggregate score over two games advancing to the next round. The final will also be played under the same format.
At the end of the season, the BBL winner will then compete against VEF Riga, Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas in the Baltic Super Cup – a questionable event in a congested basketball calendar that seems simply to be designed to have some sort of participation of the Baltic’s top teams under the BBL banner.
In the current climate, the new format will offer a refreshing change for an outdated system, with a lot more meaningful games. Under the former everybody-plays-everybody system, it was often clear early in the season which teams would advance to the finals, leading to a number of meaningless dead-rubber games in the second half of the season. But now, clubs will have a lot more to play for throughout the season with the teams experiencing an early exit being able to focus their full attentions on their domestic seasons.
Despite the absence of the Baltic’s three leading teams, and a third Lithuanian club Neptunas, the BBL remains competitive through a number of other top rating teams.
Latvian domestic runners-up and 2011 Final Four competitors Ventspils will be the team to beat in Group A, a pool that also features last year’s regular season champions, Siauliai, from Lithuania. Estonian clubs Rapla and TTU, Kazakhstan club Barsy and Lithuanian club Palanga round out the group.
In Group B, Lithuanian club Lietkabelis have made a number of exciting off-season trades, including the acquisition of exciting young Latvian national team playmaker Kaspars Vecvagars, and alongside Estonian domestic league runners-up TU/Rock will likely compete for top honors in their pool. Group B also features Estonian club and tournament newcomers Valga, Latvian clubs Jelgava and Liepajas Lauvas, and Lithuanian clubs Lietkabelis and Juventus.
Surprise pre-season tournament (see Sports in Brief for more details) winners Tarvas, from Estonia, will set out to surprise a number of opponents in Group C in which Lithuanian clubs Nevezis and Prienai can also be considered to be amongst the early frontrunners. Latvian returnees Barons/Kvartals, Estonian club Tallinn Kalev and Lithuanian club Sakalai fill out the remainder of the group.
In Group D, Estonian champions and VTB league competitors Kalev/Cramo look like having a straightforward task of finishing atop their group, which also includes Lithuanian clubs LSU/Baltai and Pieno Zvaigzdes, Latvian club Valmiera and fellow Estonian Parnu.
The BBL regular season began in the first week of October and continues until the end of February. Playoffs begin in March and end in early April.