For the first time since Euroleague Basketball unveiled EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge at the start of the 2004-05 season, a player has been able to successfully defend his title. Andrej Bizilj of Slovenia won the grand prize last season, and the experience he had in Berlin inspired him to go all the way again this season: back to back. As always, the grand prize lets the winner and a friend enjoy the ultimate Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four experience: to be special guests of Euroleague Basketball at the 2017 Final Four in Istanbul, including four hotel nights, two VIP tickets to the games and the opportunity to celebrate on court with the new champions. "It is a great feeling winning once, but twice is something incredible," Bizilj told us after his amazing win. "I was pretty optimistic this season. The EuroLeague format changed and I have always played better in the Top 16, so I expected to have a good season."
EuroLeague teams had to adjust to the new, exciting format – and so did EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge players, as Bizilj explained. "First of all, the new format is really great, we had powerhouses playing against each other every week and we didn't know until the last round who would make it to the playoffs or have the home-court advantage. All in all, it was an unbelievable season, so big congratulations to the EuroLeague organization," he said. "Fantasy was different due to the new format; more difficult games, fewer high-scoring games... My first thought was to play more straight, with as little risk as possible. You have a lot of time with 35 rounds; there was no need to hurry."
As for his strategy, Andrej used many different players throughout the season. "I guess we all had more or less the same players. It is more about when you have them. At the beginning we all had Luka Doncic but I dropped him pretty soon and took Nick Calathes. I had Andre Goudelock, Nicolo Melli, Tyler Honeycutt, Paulius Jankunas and, by the end of the season, Bryant Dunston. I had a good start, was pretty confident, but I also did some stupid, beginners' mistakes," Bizilj admits. "When Nando De Colo came back from injury, it was obvious he was out of shape. I lost my momentum, fell behind the curve and struggled for some weeks. I took a risk keeping Keith Langford and bought Jankunas that same week, and that allowed me to take the lead. I was ahead of the curve some more weeks, extended my lead and cruised to the finish after that."
Being ahead everyone else, what Andrej called "ahead of the curve," is one of the keys to this game: signing players right before they start playing great. "It is basic to know all the players you buy. You have to see them play. Stats can help but that is not enough. You have to see how involved your players are in their teams' offense. How important are they for their teams. Then you have to be patient. It is a long, long EuroLeague season. You can do well at the beginning but lose track. Be patient, don't risk if you don't need to because 100 points in nothing in this game," Bizilj told us. "You have to have a plan and stick with it no matter what. You have three trades per week and have to plan them well in advance, which players you want to have in specific rounds. If you change your mind every week because some players did not do well, you will not go far. You have to be ahead of the curve, buying and selling players before others."
Being Slovenian, Andrej is looking forward to meeting one particular player at the Final Four. "Luka Doncic is, of course, my favourite player. He is incredible. I will be very happy if I meet him," he said. "This year, I am going in Istanbul with my son Timotej. He's 15 years old and playing football, but he likes basketball very much, too. He is very excited, browsing the net, and we can't wait for the trip. I haven't been to Istanbul yet. I really want to enjoy the city, to feel the pulse of Istanbul. I will try to see as many things as possible but at the same time, have some nice time enjoying the local food, visit places where they play music... Of course, the main event for us will be the Final Four!"
His experience in Berlin motivated him to try to win again, too: "The best thing about winning last season was, of course, going to Berlin and being part of the Final Four. My wife and i enjoyed it from the very first moment of this event, from landing at the airport, where a driver was waiting for us, to being in a great hotel together with the players, to the VIP area and the games themselves. It was fantastic, a positive experience and I am looking forward to something similar this year."
Being asked for his predictions, Andrej cannot hide his appreciation for Doncic, this year's EuroLeague Rising Star. "Anything can happen in the Final Four. We will have four great teams in Istanbul and I think these four teams were the best this season. CSKA has the best roster, Olympiacos probably is the best defensive team, and we all know how deadly Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis are in any Final Four! Madrid can play incredible on offense but the Final Four is in Istanbul and, because of that, I think Fenerbahce has a small advantage, in my opinion," Bizilj said. "But my heart will beat for Real Madrid... we all know why!"
Is this the start of a EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge dynasty? "I will surely try!" Bizilj said. "It will be difficult, because there are many great fantasy players out there, but I guess that after back-to-back wins, I wouldn't bet against me. I have two sons and a daughter, so I have to win at least four times to have peace in my house!"