The Top16 draw is the most important day of the season for every Euroleague team, and the 2009 version is a classic example of why. A few teams – those who belong to the very top, such as CSKA Moscow for example – may consider this day a bit less crucial in some seasons. But for those who are on the edge of the Final Four and fight for the last ticket with something like six other contenders, the draw can decide their destiny.

Lottomatica Roma, for example, has had a great season so far but got a tough group with Panathinaikos, Unicaja and Partizan. Even if they do survive Group G, in the next round they will probably face CSKA or Montepaschi Siena – two teams that make Roma manager Dejan Bodiroga’s team look like an underdog – a very big underdog, that is, especially in a Best-of-5 series. If Roma could switch spots with Montepaschi, their way to the quarter-finals would be much smoother. And they would hold a better chance to make it.

What makes the 2009 draw special is that not only teams from the level of Roma were affected by the results. It also touched the hearts of the big clubs.

In 2007, CSKA saw that the parallel group contains Tau Ceramica, a pale version of Maccabi Tel Avis and Roma. The team from the Basque land easily won the group, which left CSKA with a series against Maccabi or Roma, and home court advantage. Easy life.

What could be CSKA’s future this season… well, keep on reading, and figure how exciting and interesting this season can turn to.

The breakdown isn’t only by group but also by “Conferences”, the ones that will make the quarter-finals pairs – right before the trip to Berlin.

Group E: Tau Ceramica, Olympiacos, AJ Milano, Asseco Prokom

No-brainer here. AJ Milano is on a great run, and won 5 of their last 6 games, including a big one at home over CSKA. But their chances to make it to the next round are very small. Prokom wrote history when they became the team to make it to the Top 16 with the fewest of wins (two), and the best they can do here is sting.

The two teams to qualify should be Tau and Olympiacos. But that doesn’t mean the group will be decided just in the two games between them. Olympiacos seemed more fragile during the season, with a less-than-convincing road record. So their games in Poland and Italy will be the big mines they will need to skip over.

Nevertheless, in Week 2 of the Top 16, Tau will arrive in Piraeus. If Dusko Ivanovic’s gang leaves Greece with a win, it’s pretty sure they will finish as the group winners – and the other four weeks will be less exciting than we would like to wish.

If the Reds prevail – and with a decent margin – then the stage will be set for a classic battle between the two teams in Vitoria on the closing day of the phase. One classic match between two giants who want to finish first.

How important is that? It could mean the difference between playing Barcelona without home court advantage and facing Real Madrid or Maccabi with it.

Close History Class: In the 2006-07 season, Tau and Olympiacos faced each other in the quarter-finals series. Tau swept the Greeks 2-0 with an 84-59 win in Vitoria and three days later edged the Greeks 95-89 on Greek soil. Time for revenge?

Group F: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Alba Berlin
Barcelona is the favorite to win this group, but only because of their Regular Season performance. Before the season tipped off it wasn’t clear Barcelona would be such a strong Final Four contender. The weak link seemed on the bench as coach Xavier Pascual still doesn’t have a full Euroleague season on his resume.

Barcelona isn’t only the team with the best record, but they also have the most impressive results. And there’s not a single player on the team you can say that without him it wouldn’t be the same. The fingerprints of coach Pascual are very impressive. It’s still a question, however, what will happen when the money is on the line. But the Top16 doesn’t seem like big money for Barcelona – yet.

Alba Berlin gave a big headache to most teams during the Regular Season: And it was anything but easy to win in Berlin in the o2 World arena. But their chances to qualify aren’t very good. The team from rising coach Luka Pavicevic can prove dangerous to any team in front of their fans. But winning on the road will be a task – probably bigger than their size. Even so, Alba’s role in the group is very important, and they could decide who will join Barcelona in the next phase.

Maccabi and Real will likely fight for the second ticket. But since Alba most probably won’t go 0-6, there’s a good chance one of them will drop a game in Germany. And that night could turn out to be decisive.

Still, the main stage will be the back-to-back Real-Maccabi and Maccabi-Real games in the third and fourth weeks. Both teams can beat each other on the road, and even a Maccabi victory in Madrid wouldn’t settle the score. These are the key weeks of the group.

Keep in mind though that Barcelona versus Real is not just a Spanish derby in the group. When two teams from the same country meet in a European competition, it’s closer to a domestic league match then a European contest. And who is favorite is a bit foggier. The games between Barcelona and Real present even more than that. Just like an old rivals derby even when there’s a clear favorite, strange things happen.

This is the only reason Barcelona’s top spot is somehow in danger. By any other scale there’s no competition. The fight between the two can also play in favor of Maccabi, which could benefit from that battle and maybe once again prove that the spirit of the club is unmatched.

The one before bottom line is still the following: Barcelona are favorites to win the group and then advance to a crazy Best-of-5 series against Tau or Olympiacos. Real and Maccabi fight for the second ticket (and then lose in the quarter-finals to whoever comes from the other side). Alba will grab a win or two, but nothing more. But since there are some off-court variables here, it’s a 60-20-20-0 group.

Close History Class: Last year Real was a first seed in their Top 16 group but lost twice to Maccabi to watch the Israeli side snatch the first spot and keep the Final Four host out. Maccabi used a big comeback and a clutch three-pointer by Yotam Halperin to force overtime in Madrid and continue from there to the win. Then, in the quarter-finals, Maccabi faced Barcelona and eliminated another Spanish team with a 2-1 triumph, after four players were ejected in Game 3 in Tel Aviv. This year both Real and Barcelona will get their chance for revenge.

The E&F Conference
If Tau and Olympiacos don’t make it, it’s one big shock. From the other side will advance two of Barcelona, Real and Maccabi. Since the last two have not impressed that much so far and don’t have a “Must-Make-It” roster, this should come down to a clash between the Basques, the Greeks and the Catalonians. One of them won’t be in the Final Four.

Considering Barca’s great start and deep roster – starred with the Juan Carlos Navarro-David Andersen duo; Tau’s trio of Pablo Prigioni-Igor Rakocevic-Tiago Splitter who played in every Final Four since 2005; and Olympiacos…well, no need to expand on their aspirations; the fact one of these teams won’t be in Berlin would be a huge splash to that club, whoever it may be.

It’s likely that Maccabi/Real will play the quarter-finals without home court advantage. If they make it to the Final Four from that situation, it will be one of the biggest shocks in Euroleague’s series history. Real will stand a better chance in case they face Tau, since that will be an ACB quarter-finals series, and it’s a totally different story in that case.



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