Cluj and Ulm, two teams in a share of second place in Group B, are squaring off on Wednesday night in BT-Arena.
Cluj, Ulm clash in unlikely strength-on-strength derby
Before the 2023-24 season tipped off, it would have been hard for one to argue that Round 6 derby in Group B would be a clash between U-BT Cluj-Napoca and ratiopharm Ulm. This notion would have been based on their performances last season, which was Cluj's first in the competition, as well as a lack of traditional rivalry between the clubs.
However, not many teams have performed better than these two in the first five weeks of the new campaign, as they enter their head-to-head clash both sporting a 4-1 record in a share of second place.
Short rotation working for Cluj
While it might not be much of a surprise to see head coach Anton Gavel's Ulm, last year's EuroCup quarterfinalists and the reigning German champion, near the top of Group B standings, for Cluj, it's a night-and-day difference from last season.
Cluj did not pick up its fourth win of the season until early March and Round 15 last season, which led to the team being one of only four teams in the competition missing the playoffs. This season, its only loss in five games so far has been a 4-point defeat against a fellow 4-1 side, JL Mincidelice Bourg en Bresse.
So far, head Coach Mihail Silvasan has been using a nine-man rotation that has allowed third fewest points (72.6 ppg.), and held teams to just 15.6 assists per game, second fewest through five rounds.
Meanwhile, veterans D.J. Seeley (13.6 ppg.) and Andrija Stipanovic (12.8 ppg., 4.8 rpg.) have paced a balanced offense that has seven players average 7.0 points or more. Alongside Seeley, fellow newcomers Jerrell Eddie (9.8 ppg., 4.2 rpg.) and Bryce Jones (8.4 ppg., 4.4 rpg., 4.2 apg.) have both given a significant contribution, making a big difference compared to last season.
Can Jallow get hot again?
Cluj hopes that will all help to have a different outcome against Ulm compared to a season ago, when it got swept in their two regular-season clashes.
At BT-Arena, the same venue where this game will take place, in the first-ever meeting between the two clubs, Ulm rallied from a second-half double-digit deficit to an 81-84 win behind Robin Christen and Karim Jallow who combined for 47 points. Christen had 26 points and was 10-for-10 from the field in that game, and Jallow scored 21 points with 4 rebounds and a career-high 4 steals, all while hitting a game-deciding basket.
And while Christen is yet to play this season, Jallow arrives red-hot into his clash, having posted 23 points with 4 rebounds in last week's 108-103 overtime win over Slask Wroclaw, and has followed it up with a 17-point effort over the weekend in the German League action.
Ulm, unlike Cluj, has made the playoffs last season and reached the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, before going to win its first domestic league crown.
There was a good amount of uncertainty around Ulm before this season because of summer departure of several key protagonists. But Coach Gavel has had no trouble getting his offense to click, as it is averaging fourth-best 92.0 points and second-most 22.4 assists going into Round 6.
Ulm has five players scoring in double figures, led by Dakota Mathis (18.0 ppg.). Trevion Williams (13.8 ppg.) is EuroCup's rebounding leader (11.5 rpg.) and while Georginho De Paula (12.4 ppg., 5.2 apg.) is one of three Ulm players averaging at least more than 4.0 assists, along with Juan Nunez (4.3 apg.) and Thomas Klepeisz (4.0 apg.).
Behind such offense, Ulm will be aiming at its fourth consecutive win, but Cluj is determined to use its defense, and home-crowd support, to keep its perfect 3-0 home record intact. A strength-vs-strength derby, a game you don't want to miss on Wednesday night.
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