Last season, AX Armani Exchange Milan had a really strong start but a plague of injuries prevented the Italian powerhouse from reaching its main goal: making it to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs. Milan has kept many of its core players and is ready for another chance to go past the regular season. Here are some of the biggest challenges it will have.
Round 4: Zeljko comes to town
One of the greatest rivalries in modern coaching is revisited when Fenerbahce's Zeljko Obradovic and Milan's Ettore Messina face off for the first time in more than five years. Not only have these two men won more EuroLeague titles this century than any other coaches, but they have played head-to-head in the championship game for three of them decided by a total of 10 points. This time, they lead last season's best offensive (Milan) and defensive (Fenerbahce) teams into battle.
Round 9: Memories of 2014
There are a lot of stories linked to Milan, Maccabi and Coach Messina, and many trace back to 2014. Milan had the home-court advantage in the playoffs, but Maccabi rallied from 12 points behind in the final minutes of regulation time to eventually win Game 1 between them in overtime and reach the Final Four. Maccabi then returned to Mediolanum Forum and eliminated CSKA, coached by Messina, in the semifinals despite trailing by 67-63 with 19.2 seconds left. Maccabi won the 2014 EuroLeague title and Messina left the competition after that Final Four. Now, they meet again.
Round 16: Journey to Moscow
It will be a special return for Coach Messina, a living legend in Moscow. Messina coached CSKA Moscow in two stints, from 2005 to 2009 and from 2012 to 2014. He led CSKA to six Final Four appearances in as many seasons with the club, reaching four consecutive championship games and lifting the trophy twice, in 2006 -- the club's first EuroLeague crown in 35 years -- and in 2008. These teams had spectacular showdowns last season, too. CSKA downed Milan in Italy, 85-90, rallying from a 13-point deficit in the final 12 minutes. CSKA also topped Milan in Moscow, 101-95, in yet another outstanding basketball game.
Round 19: Return to Istanbul
There is a lot of tradition between these time-honored EuroLeague clubs. Efes downed Milan in the 1996 Korac Cup finals, becoming the first Turkish sports club to lift a European trophy. Efes is coming off its best-ever EuroLeague campaign, in which the Turkish powerhouse finished as runner-up. These teams had great battles last season, particularly the game in Milan. Efes led 78-80 and had Vasilije Micic on the line, but he missed both free throw attempts, which allowed Milan to win on a three-point buzzer-beater by Mike James. In Istanbul, Efes bounced back, winning 101-95 and knocking Milan from the playoffs in the regular season finale behind 18 points and 8 assists from Micic. Plenty for both teams to chew on in this rematch.
Round 27: History is served
Two of the most decorated teams in Europe meet again. Madrid and Milan combine for 13 EuroLeague crowns and as many as 63 domestic league titles, which says enough about how competitive both teams have been in the last eight decades. More than half a century ago, Milan and Real faced each other in the 1967 EuroLeague continental title game, with the Spaniards prevailing 91-83. Real also beat Milan in the 1984 Saporta Cup final, 82-81. Their showdowns were two of the best games of last season, too: Real rallied to beat Milan 85-91 at Mediolanum Forum and prevailed 92-89 at in Madrid. Coach Messina and point guard Sergio Rodriguez facing their former team in what could be a must-win home game in the heat of the playoffs race should make for high drama.