First and foremost, what’s new in the Russian capital is that CSKA Moscow is the defending EuroLeague champion for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Management made it a priority to keep the core of last season’s championship squad together and Coach Dimitris Itoudis will have at his disposal 14 players that celebrated with him in Berlin in May. However the club made sure it would have depth up and down the lineup, especially in the injury-riddle frontcourt, by signing veteran center James Augustine, big man Jeff Ayres and forward Semen Antonov.
After producing one of the most prolific scoring seasons in competition history, CSKA will rely on the architects of that success to lead the way again. Reigning EuroLeague MVP Nando De Colo partners with fellow All-EuroLeague First Team member Milos Teodosic to inflict much of the damage, and with last season’s most accurate three-point marksman, Cory Higgins, firing away, all three are more dangerous. Vitali Fridzon gives the lot another elite three-point shooter. Veteran point guard Aaron Jackson is the premier attack-dog on defense and Coach Itoudis can also turn to Dimitry Kulagin when he needs a physical defender on the wings. His younger brother Mikhail Kulagin will soak up experience while aiming to prove worthy of any available minutes.
When injuries struck the frontcourt last season, Kyle Hines carried a lot of extra responsibilities and his efforts were recognized when he was named EuroLeague Best Defender. Sadly for the champs, the injury bug has reared its head again. Hines will miss the preseason as he recovers from wrist surgery, center Joel Freeland will miss the start of the season and reserve Pavel Korobkov, who had knee surgery, is out indefinitely. Thus the team will lean heavily on forwards Victor Khryapa and Andrey Vorontsevich, who are interchangeable at either forward spot. Both Khryapa and Vorontsevich can stretch the floor with their outside shooting, rebound and play excellent defense. Khryapa is also a crafty passer, which his frontcourt mates surely appreciate! Nikita Kurbanov and Antonov are expected to play behind Khryapa and Vorontsevich, which gives CSKA many reliable choices at these positions. Augustine, who comes off a strong EuroLeague campaign for Khimki Moscow Region, and EuroLeague newcomer Ayres will need to step up in the paint, with young Ivan Lazarev another option inside.
PLAYER TO WATCH
When fully healthy, Victor Khryapa is the epitome of the complete player. He is an elite passer for his position, a knockdown outside shooter and as his 2010 EuroLeague Best Defender trophy attests to, an obstacle for opposing offenses, too. Khryapa was selected to the All-EuroLeague team in each of his last two complete seasons, however a series of injuries has caused him to spend more time in street clothes than in uniform over the past two seasons. Now back is shape and with a central role in a frontcourt that starts the season down three men, Khryapa brings the skills that mesh perfectly with CSKA’s potent guards and could be the piece that takes an amazing team to an even higher level.
CSKA will learn quickly what it means to be the defending champion as it gets everyone else’s best shot. That could make it a tricky start to the season due to some injuries. The champs simply won’t have much time to build chemistry up front where newcomers Augustine and Ayres take on the roles of the sidelined Hines and Freeland. What’s more, over the first month of the season, CSKA will tangle with teams that combined to win four of the previous five EuroLeague crowns prior to last season in Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, Olympiacos Piraeus and Real Madrid. Where CSKA stands after running that gauntlet will let us know a lot about this season’s squad.