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Euroleague Primer

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions

Chances are pretty good that you don't watch a whole ton of Euroleague basketball, or spend much time following it. Neither do I. That's probably okay, but there are a couple of solid arguments in favor of paying at least a little bit of attention to the league full of teams with names I can't pronounce. First of all, more and more players are coming over here to play, and the success of players like Pau Gasol, and perhaps eventually last year's number one pick Andrea Bargnani, will only ensure that more will come in the future. By paying attention to the league you can get an edge on handicapping the players that do come over. More important than that, though, you should pay more attention to the Euroleague because you can bet on the Euroleague, and anything you can bet on is worth some attention.

Like everything else to do with sports in Europe, the Euroleague is incredibly convoluted and confusing. It takes 1,000 hours and a Masters degree or two to figure out exactly what is going on, and it doesn't help that none of the names of the teams, and most of the players, are pronounceable. The Euroleague is made up of 24 teams, and this year those 24 teams represent 13 countries. The first level of confusion is that one of those teams, Maccabi, is from Israel, which obviously isn't in Europe. The Israelis play in Europe for basketball as they do for soccer, for obvious political reasons. The Euroleague season is split into four sections. The first, or regular, season is currently underway. The 24 teams are split into three groups of eight teams. Each team plays the other seven teams in its group twice - once at home and once on the road. Once that 14-game season ends, the field of 24 is reduced to 16. Those teams are split into four groups, and each team plays the other three teams in their group twice - home and away again. By now the season is 20 games old. The reason for the relatively light schedule is that the club teams are playing in domestic leagues and tournaments at the same time as they compete in the Euroleague.

The top two teams from each of the four groups live to fight another day. Each first place team plays the second place team in another group in a best of three series, with two games played at the home of the first place team. This round is called the quarterfinals. Confused yet? We're almost done. The four teams that survive to this point get to play in the last section of the season - the Final Four. Like our version of that tournament, the European Final Four is a single knockout showdown. The winners of the first two games play for the championship, while the losers square off for third place. This year's Final Four will take place in Athens from May 4-6.

Despite the confusing means of arriving at the results, the teams that get through the system are pretty consistent - three of the four Final Four teams last year also made it there in 2005. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the champion in 2004 and 2005, and they lost in the championship game to CSKA Moscow in 2006. TAU Ceramica lost to Maccabi in the semifinals in 2004 and 2005, and the fourth Final Four team, FC Barcelona, was the 2003 champion. In other words, the top teams stay at the top in Euroleague.

For the most part, the results of past years appear to be repeating themselves this year. CSKA Moscow and TAU Ceramica are tied right at the top of the league with a 10-1 record, while FC Barcelona is just behind them at 8-2. The one team that isn't keeping up with its typical pace, though, is Maccabi Tel Aviv. They are only 6-4. The biggest reason for their step back is that Anthony Parker, an American guard who was Euroleague MVP two years in a row, left Israel to join the Toronto Raptors as the starting shooting guard. Taking the place of Maccabi among the elite of the league is Panathinaikos Athens, which is a perfect 10-0 so far. Tony Delk, who played for pretty much every team in the NBA, is a member of that team.

Leading the league in scoring is Juan Carlos Navarro of FC Barcelona, with 18.2 points per game. Navarro was a 2002 draft pick of the Washington Wizards, but he hasn't been tempted by the NBA so far, despite being best friends with Pau Gasol. Right behind him is Luis Scola, with 16.7 points. Scola was drafted by San Antonio in 2002, and the Spurs tried to bring him over in 2005, but TAU Ceramica wanted too much money to forfeit his contract. Instead, the Spurs brought over Fabricio Oberto. The top American scorer, in fourth in the league, is Kenny Gregory of Le Mans. He has bounced around the NBDL and Europe since graduating from Kansas in 2001.

Though the teams and a lot of the players are unfamiliar, there is a huge advantage to handicapping the league - the schedule. Each team only plays one game per week, and most of those games occur on the same two days - usually Tuesday and Wednesday. That means that you have a full week to handicap games and identify the value plays.

You can find odds on the league on Pinnacle just like you can for any of our basketball - spreads, moneyline and totals. If you can't get enough action from the NBA and the NCAA and you are dying for more hoops, then just look east. Way, way east to the Euroleague.

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