Game Of The Week: 3rd Place At Stake

Zenit St. Petersburg hosts Lokomotiv-Kuban Krasnodar in the final game of the regular season.

Zenit, 2014-15 VTB United League quarterfinalists
Lokomotiv-Kuban, 2014-15 VTB United League semifinalists

SIBUR Arena (capacity 7,044), St. Petersburg, Russia

8:00 PM (8:00 PM MSK), April 28, 2016

Match TV (Russia), Match! Nash sport (Russia), United League TV

Face To Face
Zenit and Loko first met last season. Kuban holds a 3-0 record, including a 22-point victory last spring in St. Petersburg's debut season. Earlier this year, Zenit pushed Krasnodar to the limit on the road, before Anthony Randolph took over in the 4th quarter to give Loko the win. The standings looked very different then: Zenit was 2nd and Loko - 7th. But the Railwaymen went on to win 10 straight, ultimately climbing to 3rd place.

First Encounter

Looking Back

3rd place in the standings and home-court advantage in the first round are at stake in Thursday's showdown. The winning team will face Avtodor in the playoff quarterfinals and avoid a potential matchup with CSKA until the finals, while the losing team drops a couple spots and must open the postseason vs. Khimki.

Earlier this week, Loko sent Krasnodar into a frenzy, winning Game 5 of the Euroleague quarterfinals to advance to the Final Four. For the first time ever, Russia will have two representatives on European club basketball's biggest stage: CSKA and Loko. Of course, the extra games will take a toll physically and mentally, whereas Zenit has been able to focus its full attention on Thursday's matchup. That said, Vasily Karasev's men have also been busy, playing 2-3 games per week in the league since March.

Loko's defense or Zenit's offense?

St. Petersburg has played attractive, up-tempo basketball since the start of the season. With Vasily Karasev urging his team forward from the bench, Zenit is averaging 89.3 points per outing, 3rd behind CSKA and Khimki.

Georgios Bartzokas took the opposite approach in Krasnodar. His team has the league's #1 defense and one of the best in Europe. During the 4th quarter of Tuesday's game vs. Barcelona, Kuban held the Spanish powerhouse to only five points in a comeback win! Lokomotiv has also been effective vs. Zenit, giving up an average of 69.3 points per outing over the past two seasons.

Ryan Toolson (Zenit) vs. Anthony Randolph (Lokomotiv-Kuban).

Though the Zenit guard and Krasnodar big man aren't likely to matchup very often on the court, this duel could decide the outcome. Both players have been in terrific form down the stretch. Toolson scored 33 points in a recent win over Kalev, while Randolph's terrific performance in overtime of Game 4 vs. Barcelona kept Loko's Euroleague dreams alive. These two men are also contenders for the VTB United League's April MVP with Thursday's game likely to have a big impact on the final results.

Zenit head coach Vasily Karasev:
- The fact that Loko had a decisive Euroleague playoff game vs. Barcelona on Tuesday is, of course, a plus for us. We were in the same situation, for example, when we played in the Russian Cup. I know what it's like to play several important games in a row. On the other hand, Lokomotiv is very balanced. Any of the 12 players on their roster can have an impact on the court. They do not have a short bench. The team includes very strong Russian national team-level players: Voronov, Bykov, Zubkov. I'm confident Loko will have people step up. Someone will be tired, but someone else will be fresh, even though it's a tough situation for them.

Lokomotiv-Kuban head coach Georgios Bartzokas:
- This is a very important game for us. We need to try to regain our strength as quickly as possible from our Euroleague game vs. Barcelona. It won't be easy, but this is the stage of the season when everyone needs to dig deep.

- Today, we'll find out who finishes 3rd in the regular season standings, - noted 2007 EuroBasket champion Nikita Morgunov. - The winner will get an easier schedule and easier opponents in the playoffs. The team that finishes 5th takes on Khimki and likely CSKA after that.

Zenit was knocked out of European competition early on. As a result, the team has been focused on the United League and had more time to prepare. Kuban, for its part, is giving everything it has to the Euroleague. On paper, Lokomotiv is stronger than Zenit, but Game 5 vs. Barcelona completely wiped out Krasnodar's leaders. Plus, Georgios Bartzokas has been going with a shorter rotation and the same starters. The game will also be in St. Petersburg, requiring extra effort to make the trip.

The game will be interesting, but Lokomotiv-Kuban could be worn out physically and mentally. As a result, Zenit, in my opinion, has a better chance of winning.