Early forecasts are always risky but I couldn’t have been much further off the mark when I pegged Fenerbahce as a likely Final Four team in October. At 2-0, on the back of a pair of impressive displays, they were about to test their mettle against a visiting Real Madrid side. Since that kiss of death, Fener have gone 3-8 in Euroleague play including a 0-3 start to the Top 16 stage. It hasn’t been blowout central, indeed they were unfortunate to fall to BC Khimki on a questionable buzzer-beater, but through 13 games they are recording 4.6 rebounds per game fewer than opponents. Having once looked like potential kings in waiting, the Istanbul club’s season rests heavily on the next two home games.
There are problems all over the court but defence and rebounding stand out as particular reasons for worry. “At the moment not a single aspect of the game seems to be working for them, but at least it started with those two,” says Savaş Birdal, an editor of Euro-Step.net. “Transition points is the key addend in Pianigiani’s offensive formula but without protecting the defensive glass, defending well and forcing turnovers, they basically can’t push the ball in to get into transition and be effective with Bo McCalebb & co.”
McCalebb looked to be the glue to bring Fener’s divergent roster together. Having played like Tecmo Bo over his last two seasons with Montepaschi Siena, the American (who holds a Macedonian passport) has continued to impress statistically despite his scoring average dropping 4 points from last season. The problem for McCalebb is that while he is capable of bringing a frenetic pace to a game, the pieces around him aren’t suited to finding that extra gear.
“It is not a secret by now that Fener are suffering from the aging bodies of [Mike] Batiste and [David] Andersen while [Oğuz] Savaş has always been a black hole on defence,” says Birdal. “[Ilkan] Karaman is just too young and inexperienced to make an instant impact. They are lacking a presence in the paint which could make the opposition feel threatened to play against. The best rebounder on the team is a small forward, Romain Sato, and that tells you everything you need to know about this team’s shortcomings on the frontcourt.”
While it would be equally foolish to my initial prediction to consider Fenerbahce’s European season doomed, time is running out to right the ship. The next two weeks feature a pair of winnable games, including one against a Khimki side rife with off-court problems.
“There are 11 games left in the Top 16 after all and they have two winnable home games coming up against Caja Laboral and Khimki,” says Birdal. “That’s not to say they are not on the edge of getting knocked out not mathematically but mentally. A loss against either Caja Laboral or Khimki would probably spell doom for Simone Pianigiani’s team and make the remaining 9 or 10 games a matter of formality.”
If there is to be a resurgence, and far stranger things have happened in Euroleague, it must begin tonight. Caja Laboral, a Basque club named for the bank of the same name, visit the Ülker Sports Arena this evening and haven’t lost, at any level, since November.
“Caja Laboral are coming off of their 15th win in same number of games and during that stretch under the newly appointed coach Zan Tabak, they have excelled in running the high pick and roll with [Thomas] Heurtel and [Maciej]Lampe, which coincidentally is the area where Fener struggle the most trying to defend,” says Birdal.
“Heurtel’s recent form and Lampe’s MVP award in December prove how efficiently that play has been working for Caja Laboral, and if Fener were to win on Friday night, it is not happening without them putting a spoke in that wheel. “
The road to London is still open for Fenerbahce but they can’t afford any more delays. Improvement will come now or never.
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