|Once again this season, Dusan Ivkovic showed why he is a living legend among basketball coaches by guiding Olympiacos Piraeus, a team for whom few people projected great things, all the way to the 2012 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four. It has been a season full of obstacles for the 68-year-old Ivkovic, who is coaching his second stint with Olympiacos after having led the team to its only Euroleague title in 1997. From a summer full of roster changes and a winter full of injuries to the addition of key players just prior to the Top 16, Ivkovic needed to battle daily to keep Olympiacos on track to peak at the right time. Ivkovic accomplished that feat despite a roster stacked with younger players. Against the odds, the Reds got better as the season progressed and proved it by playing their best in the most crucial games. With many of his players inspired to play their first Final Four, Ivkovic believes that Olympiacos is still getting better every day as it heads to Istanbul. "We grew up as a team, step by step, and played better and better. I believe so,” Ivkovic told Euroleague.net. “Right after the Top 16 Draw, I told everyone that qualifying for the playoffs would be a great success. I think that my team still has a lot of room for improvement. We can grow as a team even more."
Hello coach. Congratulations on a great season. Last year at this time there was disappointment at Olympiacos. Now, it's like a great surprise. What made the difference between then and now?
"I think that we had a great team last season with great creators like Milos Teodosic, Theo Papaloukas and Vassilis Spanoulis, in his first year with us. It was possibly the best team in Europe, but we lost against Montepaschi in the playoffs for one reason, I think, that our great players never put aside their egos to serve the team. The main difference this season is that we have a younger team, but we play together as one. We had lot of problems before the season, when our owner was ready to leave and we had to reduce our budget. But even though some people may see us as a surprise, I believe that we deserve to be in the Final Four."
The roster is almost completely different from last year. At what point during this season did you start to think that this team had the potential to reach the Final Four?
"Well, we grew up as a team step by step and played better and better. I believe so. Right after the Top 16 Draw, I told everyone that qualifying for the playoffs would be a great success. When we survived and had to play against Siena, I thought 'great, this is a chance for us to take revenge from last season's loss'. Still, we had to go step by step the whole way. I think that my team still has a lot of room for improvement. We can grow as a team even more."
You developed many young players during this season. What convinced you that players like Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas and others could compete now in the Euroleague?
"Look, to become a competitive player in the Euroleague, you need experience in the competition. With Evangelos Mantzaris, we didn't have any experience in the beginning of the season, but now he has become one of our key players. Sloukas had a lot of international experience at youth levels and was a European winner with his national team, knows how to play under pressure and that is a big advantage for him. Sloukas, Mantzaris and Kostas Papanikolaou give us a lot of energy, not only in games, but also in practice. They are great kids who have improved their game and will keep doing so in the future."
You got the last two pieces to the puzzle with Joey Dorsey and Acie Law before the Top 16. How important have they been to the team's success?
"I think they have been very important for us. Joey was our opponent with Caja Laboral [in the regular season] and even though he didn't play much, I liked his physical skills and the way he reacted on the court. He was completely different than our big players like Glyniadakis and Papadopoulos. I think he has been a key player for us on defense. He has helped us to improve our defense a lot. As for Acie Law, this guy is extremely professional and has a great personality. Both of them are great people and have been absolutely welcomed to our team."
Of course, Vassilis Spanoulis has been the team leader from day one. What makes him the perfect kind of star for a team like this one?
"Do not forget that Vassilis had to undergo serious surgery this summer and by mid-December, he had a complicated injury; the ligament in his ankle was broken. He told me: 'Coach, don't worry. I will be back for the Top 16.' What I am trying to say is that he is a different player. For sure, all defenses have their main target on him, but he is a leader with a lot of patience. I am happy that I can count on a star like Vassilis."
Looking ahead to the semifinal, FC Barcelona Regal has one of the best defenses in Euroleague history. How do you attack such a defense?
"Well, our philosophy is very simple. I think that we have the potential to play at their same defensive level. In one game, at the Final Four, I expect a lot from Barcelona and its coach. We are a younger team, but we have to play with a lot of intensity, especially on defense. We will try to run the floor like Spanish teams traditionally do. Everybody say that the Spanish League is one of the fastest in the world. We will try to play good defense and run."
Barcelona also has the Euroleague’s top all-time scorer, Juan Carlos Navarro. How can you contain him?
"I like Navarro very, very much. Navarro fights all the time and gives everything for his team, but the way he played at the EuroBasket in Lithuania with his national team, especially in the final round... I enjoyed it! After seeing that, every player who has the opportunity to guard him has a big challenge ahead of him. It is really difficult to guard a big star like Navarro. Everybody needs to give their best, not only against Navarro, but against everyone – and we must be proud of ourselves."
Kyle Hines, your top rebounder, gives away 10 centimeters to the Barcelona big men. Is that a concern or has he proven that he can use his smaller size to his advantage?
"I was lucky that we played against Brose Baskets last season! I saw Kyle and believe me now, he is smaller than any other center in the Euroleague, but Kyle is really competitive, has a great personality and is hard-working. I believed that if Charles Barkley, with his size, was able to be a great power forward in the NBA, Kyle can do the same with his size in Europe."
The other semifinal is between teams you have faced multiple times this season, CSKA in the Euroleague and Panathinaikos in Greece. How do you see that game?
"Both are really, really good teams. Not only did I face CSKA this season, but I coached them for three seasons and made it to the Final Four three times. Of course, CSKA has an advantage this season, which is having a player like Andrei Kirilenko. All of CSKA's big star players, Kirilenko is the real leader in that team. Don't you forget that Panathinaikos is the reigning champion and has a great coach in Obradovic. They have been together for many years and have achieved great things. Players like Diamantidis and Batiste will not give CSKA any advantage."
Some say this is one of the greatest seasons in your long and successful coaching career. Do you agree or will it depend on how the team does at the Final Four?
"You know, some people have told me that already, that this was my best season. When you speak about the coaching, people always take into account whether you win the title or not. I think that what we said here in the beginning of Olympiacos' preseason is that everyone had to enjoy our season. I have enjoyed this season and done my best to help this time play good basketball. If we manage to do everything we can, I will enjoy even more. I don't think that it depends on the results we get at the Final Four."