The VTB United League regular season has entered the home stretch: Most teams have 1-2 games remaining, some have already wrapped up the season. But the standings remain jumbled with several fascinating races to watch over the next eight days.
Who will finish 1st?
UNICS and CSKA have battled for the top seed all season. Loko was in the mix, too, but the EuroCup campaign took too much of the team’s energy and focus, leaving Moscow and Kazan to fight for the regular-season title.
Of course, given the new Final Four format, 1st place doesn’t mean as much. CSKA and UNICS will both be big favorites in the quarterfinal round vs. the seven and eight seeds. Still, taking down CSKA in the regular season is no easy task and Priftis’ men are giving the Army Men everything they can handle.
CSKA dealt UNICS its only two losses of the season, which means the Army Men would finish on top in the event of a tie. Perhaps fittingly, the two teams also face identical opponents down the stretch: PARMA and Zenit.
St. Petersburg is one of two teams to defeat CSKA this season. Zenit is locked in a fierce battle with Lokomotiv for 3rd place, and as the EuroLeague Final Four approaches, Itoudis and co. may be vulnerable. PARMA is also desperate for a win, knowing that any setback could mean an end to its playoff dream. UNICS will face the exact same set of challenges, so the battle to finish atop the League standings is guaranteed to entertain.
Who will round out the top three: Loko or Zenit?
Lokomotiv shot itself in the foot by losing to Zenit in the final seconds in St. Petersburg. Lokomotiv was without Dmitry Kulagin in that game and distracted by the EuroCup finals, but a loss is a loss.
Now Krasnodar and St. Petersburg have identical records: 15-6. The Red-Greens hold the tiebreaker, but any missteps would put the team in an uncomfortable situation. The four seed meets the five seed in the quarterfinals, which is likely to be Khimki, before taking on CSKA in the semifinal. Guaranteeing a top-three finish is serious business this season.
Loko’s opponents: Enisey, Khimki, Nizhny
Zenit’s opponents: CSKA, UNICS, Tsmoki-Minsk
It’s tough to say which team has an easier road to finish the season. Enisey has shown signs of life in recent weeks and Nizhny is playing its best basketball of the season.
In any case, both Loko and Zenit will do everything possible to finish third. And it won’t be for the prestige of winning bronze.
Can Avtodor pass up Khimki?
Khimki and Avtodor are in a similar position as Loko and Zenit, except finishing in 6th place may be a better move, if it means avoiding a potential match-up with CSKA in the semifinal. Of course, don’t expect Khimki and Avtodor to start tanking, but both teams would probably be okay with missing out on 5th place.
If they do end up tied, Moscow Region has the tiebreaker, depending on the outcome of May 5’s head-to-head showdown. Avtodor would need to win by 14+ points to steal the tiebreaker from Khimki, which is unlikely. On the other hand, if Khimki wins on Saturday, it will be almost impossible for Saratov to catch them.
Khimki takes on Loko and Enisey, Avtodor faces Nizhny and Astana to close out the season.
Who will make the playoffs?
Nizhny Novgorod and VEF are in position right now for a postseason bid, but everything could change with PARMA, Tsmoki and Astana nipping at their heels. Enisey hasn’t been officially eliminated yet, but their chances are too small to be worth discussing.
Nizhny could afford another loss, though it’s less than ideal, but VEF does not have that option. The Latvians are half a game up on the pack, but PARMA and Tsmoki both have two games remaining compared to one for VEF. Astana also has one game left on the schedule, which is likely to be its last.
That leaves PARMA and Tsmoki-Minsk. In the event of a tie, PARMA holds the tiebreaker vs. VEF, but not against Minsk. The Belarusians would finish ahead of PARMA, but need to beat VEF by 12+ points on May 5 to pick up the tiebreaker vs. the Latvians.
In any event, VEF has the easiest road to the postseason. Janis Gailitis’ men simply need to beat Tsmoki on the road to finish the season with a 9-15 record. That would take care of Minsk, while PARMA would need to close out the season with wins over UNICS and CSKA. It’s a brutal finishing stretch, and Nikolajs Mazurs will be hard-pressed to conjure up back-to-back wins against the League’s top two teams.
But there is another route to the postseason. Both PARMA and Tsmoki hold the tiebreaker over Nizhny Novgorod. Zoran Lukic’s men finish up vs. Avtodor and Lokomotiv-Kuban and need at least one win to feel more confident about their postseason chances.
Given the number of scenarios remaining, it’s almost impossible to predict who will advance to the postseason. We should have a much better idea after May 5, which features big games for PARMA, VEF and Tsmoki-Minsk.