VTB United League-2012/13. Group B - CSKA and Zalgiris meet once again

During the regular season the league is split into two ten-team divisions. Each team plays their division opponents twice each during the season. At the end of the regular season the top six teams from each division advance to the playoffs.

If Group A, with its depth and level playing field, is widely considered to be the group of death, then Group B, at least on paper, is far more top-heavy. Of course, the biggest attraction in the group, without doubt, is the continuation of the storied CSKA – Zalgiris rivalry.

Neptunas Lithuania


Last season. Did not participate

Status. Quiet Newcomer
Even among the league newcomers this season, Neptunas does not particularly stand out. The club's budget is small, and with only a few internationals, the team has to rely primarily on experienced local players. At first glance, the team has nothing going for it. It's possible, however, that this underdog role is perfect for new head coach Kazys Maksvytis, who will first need to create a stable working environment for the team. If he can accomplish that, maybe the team will be able to surprise a few opponents in the group.

Leader. Martynas Mazeika
Mazheika is one of the most popular players on the team. An experienced defender and former member of Lithuania's junior national teams, Mazheika recently returned after several seasons away from Neptunas. He is the team's unquestioned leader and will undoubtedly be a big help to Maksvytis during his transition to Neptunas.

Offseason acquisition. Martynas Andriuškevičius
Once nicknamed the new Sabonis, the big Lithuanian center measures 218 cm. Drafted 44th in the 2005 NBA Draft, Andriuskevicius looked destined to play in the limelight. His stint in the United States was brief, however, and unremarkable. Now he's returned to his native Lithuania. He hopes to show the fans what he is capable of this time around.

Quote. Neptunas GM Osvaldas Karauskas:
- Our strength lies in our experienced Lithuanian backbone. They’re the heart and soul of the team and they don’t require any extra motivation or encouragement to play their best. We’re also at an advantage in that our opponents know nothing about us, especially what’s it like to play us on our home court. We have a tremendous fan base that sells out every game and pushes the team to excel.

Tsmoki-Minsk Belarus

Last season. 1-15, 9th in the group

Status. Improved Outsider
Last season the Belorussians struggled to mesh their domestic and international players, which led to a very unsuccessful run in the VTB United League. Financial problems made it difficult to fix the situation during the course of the season, which meant the Minsk club dealt with the unenviable role of serving as road kill for the rest of their group. This season should be different. The club’s finances are in much better shape, they’ve changed their name, made a few outstanding acquisitions, and are determined to put last season’s woes behind them.

Leader. Aleksandr Kudryavtsev
Despite the addition of some Americans to the squad, responsibility for the team’s success will still lie with the homegrown talent. Practically the entire Belorussian national team now plays for Tsmoki-Minsk, and Kudryavtsev, who recently extended his contract and also plays a leading role for the national team, is prepared to lead his club this season.

Offseason acquisition. Jajuan Smith
With the nickname “Game Over” no one knows quite what to expect from this speedy American. According to the coaches he may be become the team’s top player. Of course, it’s possible he may prove the team’s downfall, as well. In any case, it will be fascinating to watch this player throughout the season.

Quote. Tsmoki-Minsk GM Kanstantin Sheravera:
- The VTB United League is driving basketball's growth in Belarus. One of the most important challenges for Tsmoki-Minsk this season is to be in the top-three for attendance in the league. To that end, we're going all out to attract new fans. Participation in the VTB United League is a wonderful opportunity for us to move forward.

Enisey Russia


Last season. 3-13, 8th in the group

Status. The Russian Project
Last year the team dealt with serious team morale issues, brought on the acquisition of several disruptive internationals. This season Enisey decided to change their philosophy and focus on young Russian players, while bringing on only five foreigners. The new head coach will also be a Russian, Vladislav Konovalov, who is working at this level for the first time. Another big move for the team was the decision to bring legendary coach Oleg Kim on board as an assistant. During Soviet times Kim coached SKA of Alma-Aty and nurtured an entire generation of excellent players (beginning with Olympic champion and current Astana general director Valeria Tikhonenko and ending with the very same Vladislav Konovalov, under whom he'll now be working). Later he found success with Samara's CSK VVS, Tula's Arsenal, and CSKA.

Leader. Jason Rich
Enisey's not one to experiment any more – international players must be worth every penny. Jason Rich, from his first game on the court, has proven that's he's not here just to make some money. Primarily a defensive specialist, he handles the ball well, scores, and has demonstrated that he's one of the top players on the team.

Offseason acquisition. Petr Gubanov
Gubanov is guaranteed a starting position and plenty of playing time at Enisey. Even without that luxury at UNICS, the forward demonstrated great grit and potential last season, which may earn him a call-up to the Russian national team in the near future.

Quote. Enisey director Vladimir Petrovsky:
 - We’ve given our team the goal this season to do everything they can to reach the playoffs of the VTB United League. As for the playoffs themselves, well, anything can happen there. Everything depends on the players and on the condition of the team at the end of the season. With that in mind, if we can make it to the playoffs I’ll be 70% satisfied.

Nizhny Novgorod Russia


Last season: 8-10, advanced to the round of 16

Status: Up-and-Coming Fighter
Nizhny Novgorod is a unique project. The team searches for its own sponsors without the help of any government funds, while still improving its performance each season. Last year Zoran Lukich's team managed to defeat Zalgiris twice and qualify for the playoffs. In the coming season the team is prepared to surprise once again.

Leader: Semen Antonov
The Russian national team forward turned down offers from more prestigious clubs during the offseason, opting to finish his contract with Nizhny Novgorod. It was here, of course, that he transformed himself from an unknown into a disciplined, uncompromising leader and defender, known throughout Europe.

Acquisition: Dragan Labovic
As an experienced, tough-nosed player with experience in Greece, Germany, and several other Russian clubs, he'll provide the team with the toughness it lacked last year. Currently, Labovic is embroiled in a nasty, public battle with Serbian head coach Dusan Ivkovic, meaning he's got something to prove this season.

Quote: Nizhny Novgorod president Dmitry Svatkovsky:
 - We’re in a difficult group and we’re perfectly fine with that. The more difficult the group, the bigger the goals. We have a 3-5 year plan to become one of Europe’s top clubs, which means it is important we already begin embracing challenges like these.

VEF Latvia


Last season: 8-8, 5th in the group

Status: Gritty Fighter
Last season VEF came up one victory short of advancing to the playoffs, a considerable accomplishment, when you recall that the team lost all six of its games in the initial VTB United League season. VEF plays an attractive style of attacking basketball, which certainly helps to draw in the fans.

Leader: Dairis Bertans
Bertans is still very young, but so precociously talented that VEF will trust him already as their leader. Youtube clips of his play are all over the internet, and following the European junior championships, in which Latvia advanced to the finals, everyone's talking about a move to the NBA. For now, though, Bertans plays for VEF and he's still got plenty to prove.

Offseason acquisition: E.J. Rowland
Nobody would have believed that Rowland, who played last season for Spanish side Unicaja, would end up in Riga. Rowland switched the Euroleague for the VTB United League and he'll now serve in what's surely a new capacity for him – that of experienced mentor, charged to help the team win.

Quote: VEF GM Edgars Jaunups
 - Of course, Latvia can't compare to Russia or even to Lithuania. We don't have the same ability to increase our budget by several million every year. I can say, however, with absolute confidence that VEF's budget this season will increase slightly over last season's. The team will be stronger.

Triumph Russia


Last season. Did not participate

Status. Ambitious Newcomer
After a surprisingly successful run in the Russian league last season, the newcomers hope to do the same this season in the VTB United League. Hailing from Lyubertsy, this team of youngsters (not the least of which is Sergey Karasev, bronze medalist in London and the top young Russian prospect), along with a few veterans, plays a novel brand of energetic team ball. Vasily Karasev, a former standout player himself and father of Sergey Karasev, coaches the team, while also managing to constantly delight the press with his optimistic predictions and guarantees.

Leader. Tywain McKee
When Karasev was asked how the club managed to keep McKee from leaving in the offseason, the head coach wise-cracked, “With lots of money.” In reality, McKee’s simply found his home and his team with Triumph. He’s at the top of his game here, and he is desperately needed, too. With Davon Jefferson’s departure, the responsibility to succeed will fall on McKee’s shoulders alone.

Offseason acquisition. Tasamin Mitchell
To replace last season's leader, Davon Jefferson, the team grabbed Tasmin Mitchell from Israel. It may be overly optimistic to expect the same level of play from the newcomer, but Mitchell's stats with Hapoel Holon were impressive (15.2 pts, 6.2 reb, 1.7 ast, and 1.5 stl) and there's shouldn't be any concern over his discipline.

Quote.Triumph head coach Vasily Karasev:
- Triumph needs to stop worrying about how experienced or talented the other team is and simply play in a cohesive and disciplined manner from the opening tip-off to the final buzzer. I think every athlete expects to succeed at the highest level and we're no different.

Nymburk Czech Republic


Last season. 8-8, 7th in the group

Status. Threatening Underdog
Last season Nymburk proved quite the menace to basketball teams from Russia – they knocked Khimki out of Euroleague qualification and defeated CSKA during the VTB United League regular season. In doing so, the Czech team, which played almost entirely without a center during its more than eighty-game season, surprised many and earned the reputation of a giant-killer. What will the team be capable of this season with a revamped roster? We'll see, although it's fair to say that, like last season, victories over the Czech champions won't be easy for anyone.

Leader. Pavel Pumprla
After Simmons, Wilson, and Lawrence all departed in the offseason, the team will belong solely to Pavel Pumprla. The Czech national team member is crafty, a sure three-point shooter, and very tough – the perfect embodiment of today's Nymburk squad.

Offseason acquisition. Aubrey Coleman
Among the new roster additions, head coach Ronen Ginzburg especially noted Coleman's tireless effort on defense. The American played in the Italian league last season and at Nymburk, where even the most selfish Americans learn to play team basketball, there's little doubt that Coleman will establish himself as one of the top players on the team.

Quote. Nymburk head coach Ronen Ginzburg:
- Last season we successfully competed with such teams as CSKA and Spartak St. Petersburg. We proved uncomfortable opponents for them. Thanks to a high level of team unity on the court and effort we were able to play tough at every position. It wasn't easy – the Army men are far more skilled. Still, gaining the understanding that we can fight with them gave us a lot of belief. I hope the same will be true this season.

Lokomotiv-Kuban Russia


Last season. 13-8, advanced to the Final Four

Status. Title Contenders
In its debut season the team from Krasnodar made it to the Final Four and came up just short of defeating UNICS and advancing to the finals. Lokomotiv-Kuban is developing at an extraordinary pace, acquiring top talent on the free agent market, and you can rest assured that this season, with new head coach Yevgeny Pashutin, the team will scale even higher heights.

Leader. Sergey Bykov
Despite the arrival of several top-notch foreigners, Sergey Bykov remains the driving force on this Lokomotiv-Kuban team. A skilled defender, Bykov missed the Olympics due to injury, but is nearly back to full-strength and prepared to lead his team once again to victory. Yevgeny Pashutin is lucky to have such a player on the roster.

Offseason acquisition. Nick Calathes
Calathes played at the same position for Panathinaikos as Diamantidis, which, of course, meant less time on the court for the Greek-American. Now Calathes will have complete freedom at the guard position, as well as ambitious teammates who plan to win every competition in which they compete.

Quote. Lokomotiv-Kuban president Andrey Vedishchev
- The team and the fans should be one unit. We're attempting to get to the point where the Lokomotiv-Kuban brand and the Krasnodar region and its inhabitants are permanently linked. This will happen through the games at the arena, as well as on our website and in commercials. Down the road we hope that Lokomotiv-Kuban will not only spend money, but also earn it back.

Zalgiris Lithuania


Last season. 9-9, advanced to round of 16

Status. Title Contender
Last season Zalgiris struggled to maintain any consistency. Coaches kept leaving, while the players had way too much freedom and often got into trouble. Only by the end of the season did the team find some stability. Despite that, management chose to start over completely in advance of the new season. The team has a new head coach – the well-respected Spaniard Juan Plasa. There are new leaders on the squad – the Lavrinovic brothers and Rimantas Kaukenas, as well as some seasoned internationals. All that remains is to prove on the court that the inordinate amount of attention paid to the CSKA-Zalgiris rivalry is well-placed.

Leader. Paulius Jankunas
Last season Jankunas was Zalgiris's most productive player and one of the few that fought for victory until the final buzzer. The experienced forward understands that with the new arrivals on the squad he may be in the spotlight less frequently. Still, should the team ever need someone to step up as a leader, he'll be there in a heartbeat.

Offseason acquisition. Rimantas Kaukenas
The idea of forming a formidable squad made up primarily of Lithuanian players intrigued Kaukenas. As a result, the 35-year-old came over from Siena, where he'd signed in 2010 after having played for Maccabi in Tel-Aviv. In Italy he won two championships, as well as a reputation as one of Europe's most fearless shooters.

Quote. Zalgiris owner Vladimir Romanov:
- The team's play on the court and the CSKA-Zalgiris rivalry, which I remember from my youth, are most important to me. I don't care about the score, but rather how we compete. Let the players and the coach set the goals – that's important for them. What's important to me is that there we see progress and that the coach offers something new to the team. I go to practices and I see that Plasa's got something to teach the guys on the team.

CSKA Russia


Last season.16-2, Champions

Status: Heavy Favorites
Even victory in the VTB United League wasn't enough to help CSKA forget the nightmarish Euroleague final in Istanbul last season. CSKA is going all-out this year: they've returned Europe's best coach from the NBA and strengthened the roster, while attempting to adequately replace their two departing leaders – Kirilenko and Shved – who left for America. As always, they'll attempt to win every competition in which they take part.

Leader. Victor Khryapa
With his presence alone Khryapa helps the Army men play together as a team. He unifies the frontcourt and the backcourt, executes exquisite passes, fights for rebounds, which is why he's aptly named a jack-of-all-trades, and an excellent one at that. Khryapa would be a terrific addition to any coach's system of play.

Offseason acquisition. Ettore Messina
Nothing in the offseason compares with the Italian's return to Russia. Messina is a brand unto himself. Just recall all the Euroleague championships and his unstoppable CSKA machines that rolled over the European competition. He has returned to win.

Quote. CSKA vice-president Natalia Furaeva:
- With CSKA there is no margin for error – we've got the highest standards and everyone involved with the team, from the fans to our sponsors, expects nothing but victories. It's the same in every game and in every league, which means there's a lot of pressure when you play and work for CSKA. Tremendous pressure, tremendous responsibility, but at the same time, tremendous satisfaction when we can live up to those expectations.