Welcome to the Experts Round Table – Final Four edition, where we ask a variety of the most knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the Final Four weekend. The Final Four panel includes Luca Chiabotti, the former basketball expert-in-residence at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy; Rafa Muntion, Baskonia play-by-play announcer on Radio Vitoria; Johnny Rogers, a two-time EuroLeague champion and Final Four Ambassador; Aris Barkas, Chief Editor at Eurohoops; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director for Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on the Final Four!
1. What was the biggest factor in CSKA winning the Final Four?
"Their ability to maintain their composure after finding themselves facing a double-digit deficit late in the third quarter of the semifinals against Real Madrid was the biggest factor. That enabled them to change their game plan and patiently play one possession at a time beginning early in the fourth quarter. It was remarkable how well they were able to execute under pressure on both ends of the floor. Their collective experience was probably the deciding factor in the final against Efes. This appeared to be the hungriest and the most focused CSKA team that we have seen during the past several Final Fours."
"You can talk about Xs and Os and also the coaching of Dimitris Itoudis, but ultimately – and despite a great game plan – I think that the fact that this year CSKA Moscow was challenged and doubted proved to be the best fuel for them. Add also the fact that many contracts are expiring in Moscow and you get a very un-CSKA like 'Wild Bunch' vibe. It was all about silencing the doubters."
"Being a perfect team and having great contributions in the clutch moments of the Final Four by players like Daniel Hackett and Nikita Kurbanov, who in the final game played more than [Nando] De Colo and [Sergio] Rodriguez, and the perfectly combined duos like Clyburn-Higgins and Hines-Hunter. In every moment of the games – and in the most critical ones – Coach Dimitris Itoudis found a different player, not only the big stars, who was capable of leading CSKA."
"Obviously, you need quality players but if you ask me, the great winner in this year's Final Four was CSKA's head coach, Dimitris Itoudis. He is in his best coaching shape ever. Stopping Vasilije Micic and taking small advantages here and there, all Final Four long, was amazing. That is why he is one of the best coaches -- and the way he managed the championship game proved it."
"Composure. Despite facing double-digit deficits in the second half of their semifinal and several comebacks by Efes in the championship game, at no time did anyone on CSKA lose their cool. This new, calmer determination of CSKA's was noticeable right away this season, which is why I picked them to win it all back in October. Adversity comes to all competitors, but the team that, after getting knocked down, jumps up to its feet and continues playing without a complaint is the one that is usually focused enough to win. This time, that was CSKA."
2. Which player impressed you most at the 2019 Final Four?
"It's probably not fair to single out one single player! CSKA for example played as a team and received solid contributions and maximum efforts from their starters and bench players alike. Their coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for managing rotations that enabled their stars to perform at their best during crunch time in both of those games. It is also worth noting that Efes played some really great basketball with their potent backcourt. They certainly had a tremendous season and maintained a high level of play throughout the year."
"Shane Larkin. If you need any explanation just look at his numbers. There was no player in the last quarter of a century who had such a Final Four performance. And frankly, nobody expected that in the modern era of European basketball these kinds of numbers could be achieved."
"If EuroLeague were to award not the MVP but the Most Outstanding Player, like in the NCAA, I have no doubt about my choice: Shane Larkin. And not only because he was the Final Four's top scorer by far (29.5 points per game). He gave to Efes until the last 100 seconds of the final game, when he scored the basket that closed the gap to 4 points, the hope of being able to go from worst to first."
"I have to say Cory Higgins. His talent, his fundamentals... I believe he is the best shooting guard in Europe. Moreover, in my opinion, if he had more responsibilities and asked for the ball more often, he would be even more decisive than he was with CSKA this season. He truly makes the difference. A top-class player!"
"Except for one year he was injured, Daniel Hackett never played fewer minutes or scored less in his seven-year EuroLeague career than this season. But, boy, did he stand tall in the Final Four! Hackett's no-excuses attitude was infectious whenever he took the floor for CSKA. He came back into the semifinal against Real with three fouls and 3:25 left in the third quarter, his team down 11, and didn't leave the court until the final buzzer, when his team had won. In the championship game, he played more than three guys named De Colo, Rodriguez and Hines, which tells you how important Daniel Hackett was to CSKA by the end of his first season with the club."
3. What was the highlight of the whole weekend for you?
"Again, it is difficult to come up with just a single highlight! The experience of the European basketball community coming together in Vitoria and being able to reconnect with everyone is something that was truly special. I also really enjoyed being a part of the Euroleague One Team sessions and handing out medals to the champions and finalist of the Euroleague Academy games. Seeing the future stars perform at the ANGT games also has become a can't-miss event for me during Final Four weekends!"
"It's pretty hard to pick one, but I will go with CSKA Moscow's comeback in the semifinal against Real Madrid. For a long time, CSKA had been the victim of such comebacks, but this was a sign of things to come. And it was not a fast run or a player who suddenly got hot and couldn't be stopped. It was a team effort that started in the third quarter and the push was continuous until the end of the game."
"There were a lot of great moments: I think that the tears and the final big hug between Itoudis and [CSKA CEO Andrey] Vatutin say a lot about what this success means for CSKA and its fans. Basketball-wise, I think that the comeback of CSKA against Real Madrid was the clutch moment of the Final Four. And I loved all the 80 minutes played by Efes and coached by Ergin Ataman in Vitoria, and how the Fenerbahce fans supported their archrivals against CSKA."
"Seeing the best four teams in Europe in Vitoria-Gasteiz, with a very good refereeing level, a spectacular arena and four great games. I believe no-one can claim to have been disappointed about the level of basketball they saw at Fernando Buesa Arena, and that shows how strong the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is. Obviously, it was also a great showing from a club (Baskonia) and a small city (Vitoria-Gasteiz) when it comes to organizing an event of this caliber."
"I was really impressed when many Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul fans saw through their bitter disappointment to stand and applaud the great semifinal performance of Efes guard Shane Larkin, who had basically torpedoed their team. That doesn't happen often, but it proves that true fans appreciate seeing great basketball, even if it comes from another team. That kind of public appreciation for an opponent is rarer than it should be in sports, but when it happens, it is truly special."