Welcome back to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes Ermal Kuqo, long-time EuroLeague player and recent Final Four Ambassador; Juan Antonio Casanova, the former long-time EuroLeague writer for La Vanguardia in Spain; journalist Donatas Urbonas of leading Lithuanian website 15min.lt; Nikos Varlas, Publishing Manager, Eurohoops.net Global; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director for Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on three key questions before Round 25 of the regular season!
1. Who will win the rematch of last year's championship game between Madrid and Fenerbahce?
"Given their spot in the standings, I don't really see the urgency on Fenerbahce's part to put everything on the table for this game. Their main goal is the championship come the end of May, and a regular season rematch against Real Madrid is not very appealing to them, in my opinion. Then again, they are coached by living legend Zeljko Obradovic, who doesn't really care if he's coaching against Real Madrid or SK Tirana; once he's on the floor, he wants to win, and he's surrounded himself with some great players who share the same appetite about winning. Madrid has been a little inconsistent lately and a win against a powerhouse like Fenerbahce could do wonders for team morale heading into the playoffs. Playing at home in front of their fans, I slightly favor Real Madrid for a narrow win. Whatever happens, there's one guarantee: it'll be a basketball feast for Euroleague fans all around the world, continuing the already amazing season the league is having this year."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"Real Madrid. It's hard to predict this duel between two of the biggest favorites, given that Fenerbahce has clinched home-court advantage in the playoffs and Madrid has nearly done so. More than anything, they'll be seeking a victory that sends a message. Madrid is struggling lately, with three losses in the last six games, because the injury to Trey Thompkins has been joined to the continuing recuperation process of Sergio Llull. But on its home court, Madrid has lost only once this season. The higher pace and scoring Madrid can muster against the EuroLeague's best defense, the better chances Pablo Laso's team will have to win."
The clear winners of this game are basketball fans. Just remember what kind of drama we witnessed in their first battle in Istanbul! I expect nothing different this time. Real Madrid has not been at its best the last few weeks, so I see Fenerbahce as the stronger team at this moment. But I have a sense that this game might be a turning point for Madrid. I expect them to recharge in front of their home crowd and to step up against the best Euroleague team so far. Let's say Madrid will snatch up the victory this time."
"Even though there are no favorites in games like this, I'm going to choose Real Madrid for two reasons. They're playing at home and are coming from a defeat in Barcelona. They need the win more and have a stronger motivation than Fenerbahce, who I believe will not lose the number one spot in the regular season. For this night, I'm going to bet on the Whites, but in terms of the bigger picture, I think that, this season, Zeljko Obradovic's Fenerbahce has the performance levels and consistency of a team with all the qualifications to win the EuroLeague."
"Obviously, Madrid could use the victory more, but neither team is in any danger no matter what happens in this game. For that reason, I'll go with Fenerbahce. This team's calling card is its utter seriousness at all moments this season, and that's not going to change now. There may seem to be no motivation left for Fenerbahce beyond locking up first place sooner, but then you would not be thinking like they do. To beat the defending champs on their own floor six games before the playoffs sends a strong message that will resonate into the playoffs and beyond. A loss could sow doubt, and however slight that doubt might be, it's something Fenerbahce has not let in its mind all season long."
2. What single player can boost his team's chances the most in what's left of the playoffs race??
"There's a great battle to make the playoffs, with at least six teams having similar chances with six games to go, making this one of the most exciting Euroleague seasons to date, in my opinion. Barcelona will need the brilliance of Thomas Heurtel to continue get closer to home-court advantage, as Efes will need a lot from Shane Larkin. Milano needs Kaleb Tarczewski to be a consistent big man filling for Arturas Gudaitis to open the lanes and help their flashy guards get buckets. Baskonia need the same from Vincent Poirier in Tornike Shengelia's absence. However, you can call me a basketball romantic, but I still think there's one guy who loves these moments and was born to play in them. "Kill Bill" Spanoulis is the guy who I think will step up for struggling Olympiacos and eventually get the Reds into the playoffs."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"Vincent Poirier . The would-be hosts of the Final Four don't want to miss the playoffs, and despite not having their top scorer, injured Tornike Shengelia, have won five of their last seven games. In that time, the enormous importance of Poirier has been clear. In those five wins, he averaged 13.6 points on exceptional 73% shooting. In the two losses, he had 5.5 points and shot 40%. To advance at the end a difficult final stretch, Baskonia needs Poirier at his best."
"I think Alexey Shved is the guy. Who else could return with 23 points and 11 assists after missing 15 Euroleague rounds? Who else could score more than a half team points in a big domestic win vs. CSKA? Shved is special, but there's a question if his effort will be enough to give Khimki a playoff run. Khimki is facing a very tough schedule and I'm afraid they won't make it. But Shved for sure will boost Khimki chances to be much more competitive."
"Since we're talking about chances in the playoffs race, I'm going to pick a player from a team that is fighting for the qualification and a placement in the top eight, not one from the clubs that currently occupy the qualification places. And that's none other than Bayern's Derrick Williams. Bayern's next two clashes, at home against Maccabi and versus Zalgiris in Lithuania, are extremely crucial. The American forward has proven that he's Bayern's leader and, in my opinion, the most value-for-money signing in this season's EuroLeague."
"Out of the corner of my eye, I keep watching Scottie Wilbekin of Maccabi, because a big finish by him could tilt this race towards Tel Aviv. Forgetting his goose-egg at home last week against Darussafaka, the team he lifted almost single-handedly to the 7DAYS EuroCup title last season, Wilbekin put up a 15.6-point scoring average as Maccabi won six of its last eight games. This team has a varied lineup and a coach who knows how to get over the finish line. If Wilbekin takes it up a notch now, Maccabi could sneak into the playoffs even before facing Fenerbahce on the road in Round 30."
3. Will Barcelona or Efes hold fourth place after they play on Friday? Why?
"I love the basketball Barcelona has been playing lately, with Thomas Heurtel and Ante Tomic at a very high level and one of EuroLeague's top x-factors, Victor Claver, contributing a lot. It's hard for me to be objective on this one, since I played eight years for Efes during my career and hate that they will face one of the most in-form teams for that highly coveted fourth place. But I believe that Efes's backcourt might step up big time in this game and I trust Sinan Erdem Arena will be a tough place for Barcelona. The Efes fans have been waiting for a very long time to make a Final Four, and given how the team has played so far, they are right to have high hopes and will support them like never before. I will go with my heart on this one and say that Efes wins against Barca."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"Anadolu Efes. The home-court advantage is especially key in this case, because these two teams on a similar level perform much better when playing at home than when they travel. Their EuroLeague results prove it: Efes is 10-2 and Barcelona 9-3 at home; on the road they are 5-7 and 6-6, respectively. Their last domestic league results back this up, too: Efes defeated Fenerbahce while Barcelona lost to next-to-last Murcia in Spain. That said, I think that Barcelona will end the regular season in fourth because it has the better schedule."
"I'm a big fan of Barcelona this year. They changed their game dramatically. This team has always been tough on defense under Svetislav Pesic, but since Round 14, they have averaged 6 points more than in the first 13 games. That's a huge improvement and a sign of great chemistry. They look so balanced and consistent to me right now. I respect a lot what Anadolu Efes is doing this season. They totally surpassed my expectations. But this time I go with Barcelona."
"A very tough question. Barcelona has great momentum but Efes hasn't lost at home since the game against Madrid on December 7. I'm going to bet on Efes because they cannot afford to lose to Barcelona again. After their 80-65 defeat in Barcelona earlier, another loss would mean, barring the unforeseen, losing fourth place and home-court advantage. Svetislav Pesic's Barcelona counts four wins in a row against important opponents (Olympiacos, Zalgiris, Baskonia, Madrid) and this streak will have to come to an end at some point. I predict, however, that the battle for fourthplace will be decided in the last round."
"My first thought is how great it is to see two teams who struggled so much last season playing for something so important now. This seems like your classic matchup of Efes's offense vs. Barcelona's defense. But Efes has won six straight at home by holding opponents to 70.7 points, lower than the league's best defense overall. And Barcelona has won nine of its last 11 games averaging 81.2 points. What's more, it's last two road wins were an 85-90 shootout in Milan and a 55-76 shellacking of Olympiacos, proving that Barcelona can win with different styles on the road. Still too close to call, but my nod goes to Efes on Friday for being at home. However, the hosts will be hard-pressed to surpass their 15-point loss in Barcelona for a tie-break advantage that could eventually decide which of these teams gets home-court advantage in the playoffs."