Last season’s runner-up Unics Kazan will attempt to reach the quarterfinals for its fourth consecutive Eurocup campaign, but standing in the way is former continental champion FoxTown Cantu and its young squad that enters the eighthfinals riding a dominant run on its home floor.
Journey to the eighthfinals
Unics has had the longest season of any team so far. It first survived three Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds games in late September, then battled in the Euroleague regular season to a 5-5 record, which ended up not being enough to qualify for the Top 16. After such a heartbreaking Euroleague exit, Unics joined the Eurocup Last 32 and shifted its focus on pursuing Eurocup glory once again. After few ups and couple downs, Unics eventually got help from fellow Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg to win Group G. Cantu is still alive in the competition despite starting the season with a 0-4 record. But, following a bad start it registered four wins in five contests and claimed a place in the next round with one regular season game to spare. In the Last 32, Cantu needed help from Khimki Moscow Region in the final week of action to get a chance to go through, and it sneaked into the eighthfinals by placing ahead of Limoges CSP by virtue of 5 points.
Helping hands for Johnson-Odom and Langford
Both teams have a distinctive go-to guy. While 2013-14 Euroleague Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner Keith Langford does it for Unics (19.0 ppg.), it’s Darius Johnson-Odom who raised his scoring to 18.3. points in the Last 32. And while these two delivered, the teams otherwise struggled offensively so far. No other eighthfinalist averaged fewer than Cantu’s 74.5 points this season, and Cantu is one of only four teams averaging below 70 points on the road (69.67 ppg.). The team also dished only 11.5 assists on average, fewest in the Last 32. Unics did not light it up so far, either. Among the teams in the eighthfinals, only three sides – Zenit, Bamberg and Cantu – averaged fewer points than Unics’s 76.7. However, Langford does get help, and Unics got production from James White (12.7 ppg.), Curtis Jerrells (10.2 ppg.) and D’Or Fischer (10.0 ppg.). Meanwhile, Cantu has had only two double-digit scorers this season –Johnson-Odom and James Feldeine with 11.6 points off the bench – and it might need more offensive spark to get past Unics.
Sixth man Jerrells
After the departure of starting playmaker Nikos Zisis, head coach Evgeny Pashutin used three different players as starters at the point guard position during the Last 32. Sixth man Curtis Jerrells started the first two games, mid-season acquisition Anton Ponkrashov got the nod in the next three, but then suffered a season-ending ACL injury, before Sergey Bykov started in Round 6. Despite different players starting, however, it’s Jerrells who has carried the load. He has grown accustomed to coming off the bench over the years, and in that role this season has ranked second on the team in minutes played (27:48 mpg.), second in assists (2.7 apg.), second in steals (1.3 spg.) and third in scoring (10.2 ppg.).
Cantu’s home floor
Cantu’s Eurocup success this season comes behind strong performances on its home court. Cantu made up for its road woes by changing its attacking pace at home, especially during the Last 32, by scoring 12 more points at home (81.7 ppg.) then on the road. And while that ranked its offense just outside the top 10 in that category, Cantu also ranked among the best in holding the visiting opponents to only 71.7 points. That helped Cantu win its last six home games, all by 8 points or more. Mapooro Arena is where Johnson-Odom averaged 21 points per game in the Last 32, and Damian Hollis came off the bench to become the team’s second best scorer, making 9 of his 13 shots from the field for a very respectable per-minute production (20.3 points prorated over 40 minutes).
Other than Eric Williams, no other Cantu player has turned 27 years of age yet. Just five players had previous Eurocup experience (Johnson-Odom, Williams, Stefano Gentile, Abass Awudu and Giorgi Shermadini) before the season and only Johnson-Odom, Williams and Shermadini had played in the Eurocup with other teams. None of them ever played in a two-game series. On the other hand, Unics was last year’s runner-up. Even though it put together a stellar new roster over the summer, and has only three players remaining from last season’s run (Dmitry Sokolov, Pavel Antipov, Kostas Kaimakoglou), the club has a long tradition of winning in the Eurocup, reaching at least the quarterfinals in each of its past three campaigns, including the 2011 title.