Russian Roulette


Sports Journalist Artem Komarov looks back at the current Euroleague season from the perspective of Russian teams. 

Final Four is coming. A look back at Khimki and Zenit‘s season, and a look ahead at what CSKA might expect in Cologne. 

On May 28th, the strangest Final Four in modern history will begin. Empty or almost empty arenas, coronavirus restrictions, players’ unexpected absence and, on top of that, a lot of surprises that are not connected to the sport directly. 

Let’s take a look at what Russian clubs have gone through this season. 

Khimki Moscow Region 

This is a team that probably suffered from COVID-19 the most. I mean, we do have Maccabi who lost a huge amount of money from ticket sales, but when it comes to the most damaged team by the pandemic, it should still be Khimki. 

In the beginning of the season, there was a moment when they played with 5 main players and a few youngsters. The team’s office discussed with Euroleague the possibility of re-scheduling games, but they got ‘’no’’ as an answer. They went to Spain to play against Baskonia and Real, and they of course lost both games in addition to another loss against Zalgiris the week before. 

Those losses put Khimki in an unbelievably bad situation where pressure was killing them. In the summer, they spent all the money in the world and hoped to be a contender. Guess what? Yes, you are right; rumours, problems with sponsors, bad atmosphere.  One disaster followed another.   

They couldn’t overcome this and finished the season with the worst record in Euroleague history. The roster is completely different now, and the plans are not to compete anymore, but to survive. 

Zenit Saint Petersburg 

Okay, Bayern is still the most improved team of the season. But Xavi Pascual’s squad should be somewhere there, too. 

They believed in Kevin Pangos who was injured last season and spent almost this entire season on the bench, and that was the best decision of the summer for Zenit. Beside their Canadian, they don’t really have any star on their roster, and it makes them quite difficult to defend. Similar to Bayern, this can happen when your brightest star is your head coach. 

Talking about this season, of course we should mention Zenit was lucky enough to stay healthy in terms of injuries. Alex Poythress missed some time due to an injury, but the team has signed Tarik Black and became even stronger. 

Two crucial injuries happened before the series with Barca, though I don’t think anyone noticed. Zenit fought so good that we all have paid attention to was what Barcelona spent in salaries for stars to beat a complete outsider.  

Oh, and by the way! Do you remember I said they were lucky enough? Change it to lucky a lot! Euroleague cancelled two technical losses when Zenit (being in the same position as Khimki) decided not to go to play. However, despite ending up with two losses, these results were then cancelled and they were granted permission to re-play the games. As it turns out, this helped Zenit to qualify for the playoffs (and it eliminated Valencia from the competition, too). 

What else helped them is the decision of the Euroleague office to schedule the crucial game against Panathinaikos on the date after the end of the regular season. 

It doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve good words for their season; it just means they were – yeah, as I said – lucky a lot. 

CSKA Moscow 

It’s the rare time when CSKA heads to the Final Four not being a favourite. Yes, they have the same record as Barcelona, but there were too many things happening in the second part of the season. 

Nikola Milutinov had a season-ending injury. CSKA bought out Micheal Eric, and although he is really good, we can not underestimate the importance of Milutinov. 

Mike James had a season-ending conflict with the head coach Dimitris Itoudis. CSKA bought out Iffe Lundberg, and he’s really good, but we all understand how hard it is to re-build your whole system in two months. 

The VTB League playoffs showed that CSKA is improving fast, but it also showed that this team sometimes just doesn’t know how to react. Look at the series with Nizhny Novgorod who almost finished Itoudis’ season in Russia. Or at the series with Zenit who really forced CSKA to show their best version at that moment. 

The good thing for CSKA is that the team is obviously progressing. Will Clyburn is getting back to his MVP shape, Daniel Hackett is following him, Russian guards Ivan Ukhovand and Alexander Khomenko are starting to play bigger roles. There is still the question how Janis Strelnieks will approach the Final Four because he is not in the VTB League roster and didn’t play for nearly a month; Joel Bolomboy missed a couple weeks because of an injury; Iffe Lundberg missed a few games, too. 

But CSKA made a big step to become more confident. They extended Dimitris Itoudis for two more years and showed how much they believe in the coach. The coach once proved he’s omnipotent when he’s believed in, so why doesn’t he do it again?