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Barça came top of a fiendishly difficult Euroleague first round group against Fenerbahçe, Panathinaikos, Emporio Armani Milan and Bayern Munich. Their 9-1 record was only bettered by CSKA Moscow in the first phase, but the ‘reward’ has been a slot in what looks by far the toughest of the two Top-16 groups, which they share with Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Galatasaray Liv Hospital, Zalgiris Kaunas, Red Star Belgrade, Alba Berlin and (once again) Panathinaikos. The eight teams will play each other home and away, with the top four qualifying for the quarter finals.
Here’s a look at the seven clubs that stand between FCB and a place in the last eight.
The two giants of Spanish basketball have met twice already this season, with one win each. Last Sunday at the Palau Blaugrana, Barça took the honours 76-68. Real Madrid is, along with Barça, one of the two first round group winners in Group E, which the all-whites achieved with an 8-2 record. Like Barça, they are 10-4 in the Liga Endesa, which is currently led by Unicaja Malaga (12-2) With Sergio Rodriguez and Sergi Llull leading the show on the court and Pablo Laso dictating the orders from the side-line, Madrid are looking to extend on their record eight titles in a competition they have not won since 1996.
The defending champions, with six titles in total, finished second behind CSKA Moscow in the first phase with a 7-3 record. Maccabi Tel Aviv have not looked as impressive since losing players like Tyrese Rice and Ricky Hickman, but the Israelis do have December’s Euroleague MVP, American Devin Smith, as well as securing the services of a centre who has missed the last two seasons with a knee injury, West Virginia graduate Joe Alexander. And the Nokia Arena is never an easy place to visit, where the home fans generate a famously intimidating atmosphere.
Galatasaray Liv Hospital Istanbul
Galatasaray only just squeezed into the second round thanks to having a better head-to-head differential than Neptunas Klaipeda. The Turks only managed a disappointing 4-6 record after losing three of their four games against Laboral Kutxa and Valencia Basket of the Spanish championship. Barça and Galatasaray met in the quarter finals of last season’s edition, with FCB easing through the series 3-0. Since then, ‘Gala’ have lost Nathan Jawaii to Morabanc Andorra, but have brought in Zoran Erceg of Serbia and former NBA guard Carlos Arroyo, who helped make their side one of the highest scorers of the first stage, despite their negative balance. Somewhat surprisingly, Galatasaray have never made it into the Final Four and no Turkish side has ever won the Euroleague.
The Lithuanians made the Top-16 thanks to a last-gasp 3-pointer from James Anderson to beat Dynamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari (80-79). That win saw them finish on the same 5-5 record as Unics Kazan, and qualify ahead of the Tartars thanks to a better points differential. Anderson, who was at San Antonio, Houston and Philadelphia before coming to Europe, was the second higher scorer in the first round with 17 points a game. Zalgiris were finalists back in 1986 and are bidding to become the first Lithuanian side to reach the Final Four since independence.
Red Star Belgrade
The only Serbian club to ever win the Euroleague was Partizan in 1992, but city rivals Red Star are proving to be one of the sensations of this year’s tournament. They came second in their first round group with a 6-4 record and won all four of their games against Spanish opposition, Valencia Basket and Laboral Kutxa. They also have the highest valued player in the competition so far, the spectacularly tall Boban Marjanovic. With an evaluation of 24.9, he had the fourth highest scoring rate of 16.8 a game and led in rebounds (10.7).
Alba Berlin will be Barça’s opening opponent in the Top-16. Bidding to become the first ever German side in the Final Four, they finished fourth in their first round group with a negative 4-6 record, and are probably the weakest of the eight teams FCB will face, even though they did beat current Endesa League leaders Unicaja. They have dominated the Bundesliga for years, but have recently had that hegemony threatened by the rises of Brose Baskets and Bayern Munich. Their star man is New Yorker Jamel McLean, who was the second highest evaluated player of the first phase with 21 points a game.
Barça already beat the Greek giants, who have six Euroleague titles and four this century, twice in the first round. The game at the Palau Blaugrana ended 78-69, while the 67-80 win at the OAKA was perhaps the finest game that Catalans have played this season. The ever-fearsome Panathinaikos seem to have lost some of their magic of late and were not happy to qualify down in third place with a 5-5 record. They have also seen their command in Greece fade, with Olympiakos now the dominant force in the country. The side from Piraeus beat them in the last game of 2014 in the Greek championship.
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