The 7DAYS EuroCup Top 16 has not gone as planned for Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and its fans so far. Sitting on a 1-3 record with two games to go, Zvezda needs to win its last two games, and get some help in order to jump over Unicaja Malaga and grab second place in Group G. But Zvezda still believes in the best possible outcome, and one of the reasons for that optimism is the play of its oldest and the most experienced player, the three-time Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion Stratos Perperoglou. Just 34 years young, the Zvezda forward is having one of the best seasons of his career. He is one of three Zvezda players scoring in double-digits, averaging 11.1 points on 42.6% shooting from downtown, along with 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists. But Perperoglou has shined like few players during the Top 16, stepping it up a couple of extra notches. Playing a team-high 29 minutes, he heads into Round 5 ranking second among all Top 16 players with 17.0 points per game, while shooting 50% from long range, and collecting 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Now, he wants to help his team snap the three-game losing streak and stay in the hunt for the EuroCup Quarterfinals. "In one season, there are going to be periods where nothing goes your way, but you have to fight through and keep pushing," Perperoglou told Eurocupbasketball.com. "We need a good game against Limoges. It is important for us to get a win."
Stratos, you guys have lost three straight games, but two of them, on the road against Unicaja and home against Valencia, came down to the final minute. What decided them?
"We played against some great teams. They have a lot of quality and a lot of talent. We tried to compete against them. Basketball is a game of details, and obviously we were missing some details in both the game we played in Malaga, and at home against Valencia. Also, they are more experienced than we are. We were close, but we could not win."
On the other hand, how many positives do you draw from the fact you came so close in Malaga, and lost on a game-winner to undefeated Valencia?
"Yeah, there are positive things to look at. I think we fought and left a good impression as a team. But I think we kind of set ourselves up earlier in the season. I think we are in the hardest Top 16 group, and we had some losses earlier in the season that put us in this situation. We are certainly trying to do our best, we still have chances to advance but it is not really in our hands. We have to do our job in the last two games of the Top 16 and wait for some other results."
"I used to be faster and more athletic. Now I am getting older, but I have more experience."
Zvezda has seen three-game winning and losing streaks twice each in this EuroCup season. How do you explain those ups and downs?
"The truth is that lately we have not been playing our best basketball of the season, and this past weekend we lost our first game in the Adriatic League. But that is all normal, you cannot play all the games at the same level. In one season, there are going to be periods where nothing goes your way, but you have to fight through and keep pushing. We need a good game against Limoges. It is important for us to get a win. But any team has its ups and downs; that's how the season works."
You are having one of your best seasons in your career, statistically. How do you look at this campaign from a personal perspective?
"I still feel good. I try to take care of my body, and I feel good on the team because we have a good chemistry. And my legs still hold, and as long as my legs still hold, I will try to do my best."
This is your 16th pro season, almost all of it spent playing at the elite level, winning three EuroLeague titles. How differently do you approach your seasons at age 34?
"I feel like I have more experience now. I used to be faster and more athletic. Now I am getting older, but I have more experience. I try to balance it out that way. I also approach the game more mental. I try to be more prepared in what I am going to face during the game, and I try to spend my energy in a smarter way. At this age, I know what to expect. I use all the information we get from the scouting that is given to us to mentally prepare for the game, and I just know what to expect. When I go into the game I know what I have to give. The preparation starts the night before, playing different scenarios in your head in terms of seeing your opponent, how they play, their plays and individual characteristics, which all helps during the game. And in the off-season, I don't play for the national team anymore, so I get to enjoy the family. It is important I get to take care of my body in a different way than before, which also helps me feel better during the season. Recharge the batteries and work on your weaknesses."
You made your EuroCup debut back in 2005. Now, this is your third season, second consecutive in the competition, after 10 years in the EuroLeague. How far has EuroCup come in the past decade?
"The EuroCup is really competitive. I played last year, after more than a decade, and I was very surprised at how high the level is. And this year, just our group now has three basically EuroLeague teams. And it is fun. It is a nice competition, and it keeps getting better."
Zvezda has played against the half of the current Top 16 teams, either in the EuroCup or domestically. How do you see the Top 16 field, and what do you expect?
"It is hard to tell. I don't think there are big differences between teams. I feel like some small details will determine how far some teams will go. We could also be advancing from this round, we have the potential, but as I already said, it is not in our hands right now. Valencia is a good team, Andorra, too. We have not played against UNICS, Zenit or Lokomotiv, but all the Russian teams are good. I don't think you can say there is a strong favorite. Many teams can go all the way to the end and win the EuroCup. Like Darussafaka or Unicaja in the last two years. Last season, Lokomotiv was undefeated but then lost in the finals. It just depends who will be at a peak form at the right time."
"The fans will not win the game for you, you need to play basketball, but they definitely help you."
One of the experiences that Zvezda players enjoy most is the club’s fans. You played with Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in your native Greece. How does it feel to have an army of fans behind you once again?
"It is really fun and exciting to play in front of these big crowds. And there is also a big rivalry with Partizan here. For me it was obviously familiar, because I was part of the big rivalry in Greece, and I was looking forward to be playing in these big games and be part of that atmosphere again. And fans give you a great push. They give you energy. Sometimes it can go the opposite way, it can create more pressure, so you have to be able to handle emotions. But the truth is, the fans will not win the game for you. You need to play basketball, but they definitely help you and give you the extra energy that you need."
There are many Serbians in Greece, but not many Greek players in Serbia. How did you come about that decision and how has the experience been?
"I talked to the coach Milan Tomic when he signed here. We worked together in Olympiacos and we knew each other. It is a new beginning for him as a head coach, and for me it was a good opportunity to play in one of the biggest teams in this region. On and off the court has been fun. I like the city of Belgrade, I like the people and the fans. It has really been a positive experience so far. Maybe the snow is the only thing that I had to get used to, coming from Greece and having lived in cities like Barcelona. So I am trying to get used to the cold."
Your next game is against Limoges, which you beat in the Top 16 opener. What do you expect from this game and what do you guys need to get back to the winning track?
"It is not going to be easy. It is never easy, and they don't have a win in the Top 16 so they will probably give their best to get this one. It is going to be tough. But we have to be focused from the beginning. We have to play tough and try to beat Limoges, then wait for Wednesday to see if we will still have a chance in the final round to qualify for the quarterfinals. It is out of our hands, but we still hope for the best."