The party’s already starting in Bilbao to be sure … after all, the Copa del Rey basketball tournament isn’t just a sporting event; heck, it’s not even just another national cup competition. Instead, the “King’s Cup” consumes much of the national population’s attention as determines the class of Europe’s top hoops superpower is confirmed. Concerts and revelry will be the order of the day against a pastiche of top-flight basketball.
Until Friday, though, everyone waits. And the press asks the questions and collects the quotes while practices seem to go on forever. The following is a selection of what’s on the minds of key players, coaches and pundits as the Copa del Rey hype buildup continues…
• “We are the champions and we must defend the title,” says Fernando San Emeterio in this piece on Baskonia of the same name. Teammate Marcelinho Huertas, meanwhile, finds Copa del Rey time to be “different from any league match” and uniquely Spanish: “En Italia no se vive de la misma manera. La ciudad no participaba de la Copa, ni mucho menos.”
• Will Valencia be playing the Copa without Rafa Martinez, who suffered a leg injury playing Eurocup ball? Says coach Neven Spahija: “I think Rafa will be back, but now it is too early to know. He has done single and two training sessions went well, but a party or a joint training is another matter. We’ll see after the work session on Wednesday afternoon.”
• “We’re on the way to changing things,” proclaimed ACB Player of the week Axel Herville of Bizkaia Bilbao Basket. Herville added that his team will be going into the Baskonia game “with all the confidence in the world.” Despite a certain 86-71 Bilbao loss in late January, the Belgian says that “I don’t think the game we played three weeks ago against Caja Laboral is a good reference point. Things have changed and we have nothing to lose.” Truer words may have never been spoken: At 7-15 in ACB play thus far, Bilbao is on the cusp of relegation in a tie for 17th.
• Baskonia fans may want to cover their eyes before reading this one: “Tiago Splitter will be watched by three scouts from the San Antonio Spurs, the team that has NBA rights [to Splitter], and will be in Bilbao to see the evolution of the center…” Despite Caja Laboral recently having signed Splitter to an extension, his contract does indeed include an NBA opt-out clause for 2010. (That sound you just heard was 100,000 Spurs fans spontaneously frantically googling “Tiago Splitter.”)
• Europa Press enumerates a list of the 60 non-Spanish players representing 22 nationalities in the Copa del Rey. Among nations, the U.S. leads the list with 12 players: Earl Calloway (Cajasol); Terence Morris (Regal FC Barcelona); Travis Hansen (Real Madrid); Louis Bullock (Real Madrid); Sean Singletary (Baskonia); Brad Oleson (Baskonia); Thomas Kelati (Valencia), Clay Tucker (DKV Joventut), Nik Caner-Medley (Asefa Estudiantes) and Chris Lofton (Asefa Estudiantes); Tyrone Ellis (Cajasol); and Tariq Kirksay (Cajasol).
Serbia, meanwhile, boasts nine players in the tournament with Petar Popovic (Asefa Estudiantes); Ivan Radenovic (Cajasol); Dusko Savanovic (Cajasol); Marko Jaric (Real Madrid); Novica Velickovic (Real Madrid); Kosta Perovic (Valencia); Marko Marinovic (Valencia); Uros Tripkovic (DKV Joventut); and Luka Bogdanovic (DKV Joventut).
• And now for some déjà vu. Analyzing Esefa Estudiantes’ possibilities in the Copa, writer Javier Cepedano of En Cancha sums it up with “Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.”
• Who’s the favorite? Well, most Copa del Rey aspirants are naturally giving that juggernaut the Valdemort treatment, i.e. FC Barcelona is heretofore known as “They Who Shall Not Be Named.” Pancho Jasen Hernan, Asefa Estudiantes captain, was unabashed in his opinion, however: “I see Barcelona as the biggest favorite to [win] the Cup.” Hernan added “and then all the other teams have the same chances.”
Hernan went on to opine that “This is a tournament that you always want to play, because it is spectacular, a full weekend of basketball”: Surely sentiments with which all basketball lovers can agree.
The quarterfinal games in the Copa del Rey tournament pit Valencia vs. Estudiantes; FC Barcelona vs. Cajasol; Baskonia vs. Bilbao; and Real Madrid vs. DKV Joventut.