The regular season of the EuroLeague is reaching its’ peak with only 9 rounds left to play. If I have learned anything from the 21 rounds so far, it is not to expect the expected to happen.

There have been so many matches against the odds played in the EuroLeague that I can already say that the new system of the EuroLeague was one of the most successful decisions in European basketball in years.

I know that everyone keeps saying that there are no weak teams at the highest level, but it is actually the truth.

At least four teams are fighting for first place and the rest of the pack still has their play-off hopes alive. Every single round brings new surprise.

However, there are two relatively little talked about teams that stand out.

Crvena Zvezda                       

Before the season, Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade was supposed to be the meat for the cannonballs of power teams such as CSKA or Real Madrid. However.

After 21 rounds played, Zvezda is standing 5th in the EuroLeague with 12 wins and only 9 looses. If that is not impressive enough, they have had a seven game win streak in January, including victories over CSKA, Real Madrid, and Fenerbahce Ulker – three richest clubs in the EuroLeague.

To make it all even more dramatic, note that Crvena Zvezda’s budget is the lowest in the whole EuroLeague with only 5 million euros, compared to 35 million euros of CSKA or 21 million euros of Barcelona. This is pretty impressive, right? Well, word “zvezda” translated to English means star, so that might be the reason.

What were the main factors that lit this star?

First of all – team spirit. Don’t get fooled, though. By saying team spirit, I mean whole Belgrade. I think no one could disagree that Kombank arena in Belgrade has probably the most passionate fans in the world. This arena is always full and no matter what is the score, you can always know that the fans will be getting crazy. Those fans are loyal and respectful. Belgrade might be the true Mecca of basketball.

There is no surprise that players give their all on the court. Looking at the stats, you will see that only one player is averaging more than 10 points; Kuzmic makes 8 rebounds per game, but he barely gets any support as Simonovic is second with only 3.3 rebounds; all the players except one make less than 3 assists per game as well. Those stats are unbelievably evenly spread among the Crvena Zvezda team. On any given day, any player can provide some magic and that really helps.

Apart from magic, it is all hard work. I watched many games of this team and the biggest factor why they win is cherishing the ball and converting on opponents mistakes. Crvena Zvezda does not have many schemes on the offense and loves to rely on 3 point shooting. That sometimes hurts. However, they work like crazy in defense to outweigh their lack of talent.

So far so good – Crvena Zvezda is fifth in EuroLeague and will most likely play in the play-offs. I will repeat myself – this is the team which was projected to finish in the last position with maximum 4-5 victories. Passion of this team is the reason why I love basketball so much.

Marko Simonovic in a round 21 game. Photo VIA EuroLeague.net

Kauno Zalgiris

Kauno Zalgiris budget is 3 million euros bigger than Crvena Zvezda, but it still looks miserable compared to the biggest clubs. Coming from Lithuania, I have followed all the pre-season and their journey in the EuroLeague so far. I have seen how people kept raising their expectations with every single day and now are dreaming to play in the next round of the EuroLeague.

Before the season no one would have expected to have a shot at the play-offs after 21 rounds of basketball. Zalgiris was projected with 5-7 wins tops and some shameful loses. That is exactly what happened in the last seasons – Zalgiris would fight hard on their home court, but when playing away, they would usually lose by 20-40 points. Nothing much has changed this year, but this team is fighting against everyone and everywhere. Zalgiris has 9 wins and 12 loses at the moment (easily could have been 13-8 if they were a little bit luckier) and standing 10th, only one victory behind 8th place, which guarantees the spot in the next round.

What is the main reason for such a turnaround of events compared to last seasons? I must say that it is the coach Sarunas Jasikevicius. He is arguably the best player of Lithuania in 21st century and he is now proving to be a perfect coach as well. His love for the job shines through every game and it is no wonder why Jasikevicius is one of the most respected people in the basketball world of Lithuania.

Jasikevicius has built his team in post-season with a clear idea – he wanted to have a fast team with a lot of good shooters. Jasikevicius also proved himself to be a very talented coach when it comes to preparing a game plan against every single opponent. Of course, it is only his second year being a coach and a lot of things have to be improved, but I bet that Jasikevicius will be among top coaches in Europe pretty soon.

One of the off-scene acts that Jasikevicius does is personally giving his experience to the young point guards of Kaunas Zalgiris. Lukas Lekavicius is one of the most improved players in Europe this year. He has become a very aggressive player; he is not afraid to make risky passes; and most importantly he is passionate and full of self-confidence. It has clearly come from Sarunas Jasikevicius’ belief and extra lessons. This kind of collaboration is also great for Lithuanian basketball as Lekavicius might be that player to fix point guard problems in the National team.

As for now, Zalgiris is proving that budget does not matter that much and fighting for the play-offs against all odds. If one year ago, Zalgiris would fly to Piraeus with the idea of losing the game, Jasikevicius has done it all to kill this looser mentality and Zalgiris is now only fights for the victory.

Lukas Lekavicius in a round 21 game. Photo VIA Euroleague.net