An all-Russian showdown between former champion Khimki Moscow Region and Zenit St. Petersburg promises to be a great battle, especially since the two teams already faced each other in the regular season, and now are set to meet three times within eight days.
Here we go again
This is not only an all-Russian showdown, but these two teams have played each other three times already this season, including splitting their Eurocup regular season games. Moreover, Khimki and Zenit are scheduled to play each other over the weekend between the two legs of this series. So, there is little these two foes don't already know about one another, and there won’t be much room for the element of surprise in the return leg, which will be their sixth clash of the season. So far, the home teams have won each of three games, with Khimki holding a 2-1 edge. In Sibur Arena, where the first leg of this series will be played, Zenit won their regular season Round 5 contest 89-86 behind 25 points and 9 assists from Walter Hodge, who earned Eurocup weekly MVP honors for that performance, and with Dejan Borovnjak amassing 21 points plus 11 rebounds. Khimki avenged the loss with a 90-68 victory in Round 10.
Culture of winning
Khimki has been one of the most successful clubs in the Eurocup this past decade. This is club’s sixth season in the competition, and it has won a total of 72 games, reached a pair of title games and lifted the trophy in 2012. From that squad, Egor Vyaltsev, Sergey Monia and head coach Rimas Kurtinaitis are still with the team today. A couple of other proven winners – like 2011 Eurocup champ and the finals MVP Marko Popovic and last year’s Euroleague Final Four MVP Tyrese Rice – handle the ball this season. Three other key players – big men James Augustine and Paul Davis, and three-point assassin Petteri Koponen – are with the team for a third straight season. Playing together means a lot, and Khimki has had two thirds of the roster together during its current 16-game Eurocup home winning streak, and has won 27 of the last 28 gamed on its home floor. All that has helped make winning a habit for Khimki.
Clash at the point
Two great point guards will battle it out in this series, with Walter Hodge and Tyrese Rice facing each other. Former All-Eurocup guard Hodge has been Zenit's driving force. Through 16 games, only two players this season have played more minutes (31:42 mpg.) and dished more assists (6.3 apg.) than Hodge. He is also fourth best scorer (15.7 ppg.) still alive in the eighthfinals. On the other hand, Rice is fifth in scoring (15.4 ppg.), fifth in performance index rating (17.94), and fourth in assists (5.4 apg.) among the players still in the competition. Hodge earned MVP honors in the regular season win against Khimki this season, and big performances from these two players could go a long way towards deciding the series.
Successful players – successful coaches
Two former greats as players – Vasily Karasev and Rimas Kurtinaitis – serve as well-acclaimed head coaches for these two rivals. Karasev, now 43 years old, finished his professional career only five years ago. He was arguably one of Europe’s best point guards during the 1990s. He led the Russian national team to a pair of FIBA World Cup silver medals (1994, 1998) plus a silver (1993) and bronze medal (1997) at EuroBasket. He is in his third full season as head coach and already led Triumph (now Zenit) to be the runner-up (2014) and third place finisher (2012) in the FIBA EuroChallenge. A fantastic shooter as a player, Kurtinaitis was an Olympic champion (1988), World champion (1982) and European champion (1985) with the Soviet Union. He is eight years older and has that much more coaching experience than Karasev. So far, Kurtinaitis has two Eurocup titles (with Khimki, and with Lietuvos Rytas in 2009), and his Khimki teams the past three seasons boast a 43-7 Eurocup record and one of the best winning percentages in all of the competition.
What’s the starting lineup?
In the process of looking for a winning formula, Coach Karasev used 14 different players as starters this season. In a key game on the road at Strasbourg, Hodge, who started in all of the previous 15 games, had his lone game off the bench. Borovnjak is the only other player with double-digit starts. Some of the lineup shuffling had to do with Zenit's losses. They hold 5-5 record in their last 10 games, and the losses came by margins of 14, 22, 36, 12 and 21 points. One could argue that Hodge, Andrey Koshcheev, Artem Komolov, Dejan Borovnjak, Dalenta Stephens is the most regular starting lineup, however, big forward Koshcheev is lost for the season after an Achilles tendon tear. But Zenit will surely count on a great spark off the bench from Kyle Landry and Artem Vikhorov and gets a big boost with Dmitry Kulagin's return from injury.