Besiktas are looking to win the Turkish title for only the third time in the club’s history but go into their best-of-7 series with Fenerbahce as whopping underdogs against the Euroleague and reigning BSL champions. Emmet Ryan looks at what to watch in this pairing and why one man involved with the underdogs can already see this season as a big success
Ufuk Sarica knows what it takes to go deep in the Turkish post-season heading up an underdog outfit. His miracle run with Pinar Karsiyaka two years ago, securing a spot in Euroleague in the process, was the story of the summer of 2015. Here was this veteran but not old line-up that was really shallow finding a way to bust through Fenerbahce and Efes to claim the championship. He can hear the doubters, he just has no reason to listen to them.
When Sarica took over the reins at Besiktas this season, there was a mental rebuild required with this outfit. Back-to-back disappointing seasons, failing to make the playoffs both times, preceded his arrival and left the treble winning season of 2012 feeling so very far away. The spirit and focus was what Sarica brought. Wins had to be earned, not just by Besiktas but by the opponent too. That’s fundamentally what Sarica brings as a coach, not to think like plucky underdogs but to play like the opponent has to go all-out to have a hope of stopping you. It’s the confidence he instilled that turned a moribund club around in the space of a season, locking up second place in the regular season before taking down Efes in the playoffs to punch their ticket to a first finals since that title win.
Even with disappointing displays in the Turkish Cup and Basketball Champions League, the leap forward under Sarica has been huge for Besiktas. This is a side ready to roll again, even if Michael Roll has indicated he wants out after this season to get a shot at playing Euroleague*. Sarica’s used to going for it all with a roster in flux, as were most apparent with the massive break-up of that title winning Karsiyaka side. Here he’s got a familiar face from that run in DJ Strawberry and some vets putting up career best numbers like Vladimir Stimac and Roll along with NBA import Earl Clark adapting well to the game in Turkey. It’s more run loudly run shallow than Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster might like although that movie had very little silent running to begin with.
*For our American readers: Besiktas have indicated they will stay in FIBA’s Champions League rather than accept an invite to Euroleague’s Eurocup next season irrespective of what happens in the finals. There isn’t an open slot for them in Euroleague proper.
Staring down Sarica however is a man hungry for payback. Two years ago Zeljko Obradovic’s Fenerbahce were sent packing by Sarica’s Karsiyaka 3-1 in the semi-finals. Fresh off a failure at the Euroleague Final Four in Madrid, Fener were ripe for an upset and Sarica’s charges pounced. It may not be the biggest of Zoc’s grudges but the mastermind has a habit of ensuring the record gets checked down the line. Now he’s got his shot and a phenomenal arsenal at his disposal.
Bogdan Bogdanovic had a quiet Final Four but, with this likely being his final spell in a Fenerbahce shirt, you can expect him to want to go out on a high. Then there’s just the sheer depth everywhere on this roster, at least comparative to Besiktas. Jan Vesely and Ekpe Udoh present a special kind of one-two punch, with the giant duo able to alternate partnerships with Nikola Kalinic, Gigi Datome, and Pero Antic regularly. It’s those extra bodies in the front court that can wear down Besiktas over this series and freeing up the speed of Bobby Dixon alongside Bogdanovic or Kostas Sloukas.
What Obradovic has now, particularly at BSL level, is the combination of looks he wants to shift the pace and style of the game. He can dictate the speed of every encounter, forcing Sarica into either running his charges into the ground or going to a bench which simply can’t match up with Fener’s back-up options. That’s the problem when you take on the best side in Europe, especially one that has paced its season so well.
The injury woes that plagued Fenerbahce during the Euroleague regular season didn’t hamper them to the same degree domestically, rolling to a 28-2 record and top seed with a season sweep of Besiktas in the process. Fenerbahce haven’t lost since March at any level, winning 18 straight in all competitions, and haven’t dropped BSL game in 2017. Save for an early exit from the cup, it’s been a ludicrous spell for Fener of late and one built of players getting healthy at the right time. Some of that was luck, some of that was Obradovic balancing matters the way he needed to so he could be primed to win the prizes that mattered on both fronts.
Sarica’s sure to spring some surprises but this simply won’t be a series for the neutral. Everything about Fenerbahce since the start of April screams of the unstoppable juggernaut we expected to see all season long. In Turkey, they’ve been that monster the whole time. There’s only one pick.
Fearless prediction: Fenerbahce in 4.