In the leadup to the 2011-12 Eurocup Final Four tournament beginning on Saturday, Eurosport Turkey basketball commentator Uygar Karaca contributes a series of previews on the remaining quartet entitled “Four Teams, Four Stories” to BallinEurope. Today, Karaca takes a look at Lietuvos Rytas – and the club’s amazing ability to continually come back and adapt.
Valencia is not alone in its ambition for the third crown. Their opponent in the semifinals, Lietuvos Rytas, for the last five seasons has demonstrated the model on how to come back again the damage they have suffered. Nobody can deny that L. Rytas is a difficult place to work for coaches, but somehow, with different players and different head coaches, this club has managed to book a ticket for the final four of Eurocup in Khimki.
It seems Lietuvos Rytas has a similar scheme although the names change: One US-based star and three domestic leaders. Recall 2005, when they got their first crown in the ULEB Cup. Coach Vlade Djurovic left mid-season and Tomo Mahoric, the young Slovenian coach, led them to victory against Makedonikos in the finals with players like Delininkaitis, Stelmahers, Robertas Javtokas and Tyrone Nesby.
In 2007, the club fired Zmago Sagadin and replaced him with his assistant Aleksandr Trifunovic. This time the on-court leader was Kareem Rush and, along with the veterans, Matt Nielsen gave significant support. L. Rytas lost against coach Joan Plaza’s Real Madrid, a sleeping giant desperately seeking a European trophy.
In 2009, after the damaging effects of the global financial crises were felt heavily in Lithuania, coach Antanas Sireika was released. His replacement Rimas Kurtinaitis changed the direction of the season and organised the team around Chuck Eidson along with Lukauskis, Jomantas and Petravicius. This was the way the second Eurocup crown was won.
After a couple of decent years in the Euroleague, L. Rytas counted on Aleksandr Dzikic at the beginning of the season with a long list of new players. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the team’s inability to reach the Euroleague group stage despite being the host for the qualification round. One must admit that they were unlucky to play against Galatasaray, the surprise of 2011-12, and to have lost their American guard Tyrese Rice due to injury during the final match. Once again, though, the team has managed to put things back on the track.
After an undefeated Eurocup regular season campaign, L. Rytas were able to beat Benetton both in home and away fixtures to reach the quarterfinal round. BC Donetsk was a powerful team but Siemens Arena, the home of basketball in Vilnius, was too loud and that 11-point victory in the first match gave them a great advantage. Defeat in Ukraine did not stop them walking to the Final Four stage.
What does L. Rytas have now? A very well-designed team, that’s what.
The first player that comes to our minds without hesitaton is Jonas Valanciunas. Thanks to the Toronto Raptors, who drafted him as the no. 5 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, the whole world has heard about him. Actually, it is an interesting coincidence that Raptors coach Dwayne Casey is a friend of Aleksandr Dzikic of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Remember: Casey gave Dzikic a chance to taste the NBA atmosphere by appointing him as an assistant.
Naturally sometimes Valanciunas gets tired and that’s where Predrag Samardziski comes into the picture. After a one-month injury period, he’s back. Eurobasket 2011 followers already know what he is as a member of the FYR Macedonian team that made the semifinals.
Occasionally, athletic power forwards Mindaugas Katelynas and Lawrence Roberts play together. Katelynas, with his high athletic ability combined with dependable midrange shooting, is enough to make rivals anxious. Roberts is the nightmare of defensive rebounders.
Of course, someone needs to pass or play the pick-and-roll with these guys. Ask Tyrese Rice. After a great season with Artland Dragons, the former Boston College player disturbs the defensive balance of the opponents with dangerous dribbles and penetrations. He’s backed by veteran Aleksandr Rasic in cases of greater defensive intensity or organized offense needed.
If there is someone who tries to kill L. Rytas with his offensive contribution, call Babrauskas and he will deal with the situation. The three-pointers that he’ll make consecutively if he is on his game will be added as a bonus. Along with him, Arturas Jomantas comes from the core and shows his experience. Jomantas knows about being a kind of club symbol after his service for the last five years: L. Rytas calls him if anything is needed.
And we can’t forget Reinaldas Seibutis, who rejuvenated his career last year in Olin Edirne, and with that confidence had no difficulty becoming a fan favourite. Seibutis is the top- scorer on the team with an average of 14.3 points per Eurocup game.
One thing to add is that one can feel a deep Serbian – actually Partizan – spirit in this team. Dzikic himself was an member of the Partizan coaching squad from the beginning of the 2000s and knows Samardziski from those days. Additionally, Aleksandr Rasic and Lawrence Roberts had ties with the Belgrade team, while assistant coach Srdan Flajs worked with the Serbian U20 national team organisation last summer.
Can Dzikic will win the Eurocup 2011-2012 after clinching the Eurochallange title with Krka Novo Mesto last season? Losing against Lokomotiv Kuban two times in the groups was not a good reference, considering at least one of the Russian teams – BC Khimki or Spartak St. Petersburg – will be in the finals.