Panathinaikos the favorites as Greek season tips off

Oct 19, 2007 - 3:37 PM Graham Wood Special to PA SportsTicker

ATHENS (TICKER) -- Greece's basketball season gets underway on Saturday with the same, inevitable question on everybody's lips: Can anyone stop Panathinaikos?

Back in June, the reigning European Champions clinched a thrilling 3-2 playoff finals victory over Olympiacos to clinch the Euroleague, Greek A1 League, and Greek Cup.

Astonishingly, Zelimir Obradovic's team has collected nine of the last 10 titles and the Euroleague triumph was the fourth in their trophy-laden history.

When you add the summer arrival of Lithuania star Sarunas Jasikevicius to the Greens roster, the other teams could be forgiven for simply giving up and going home.

That is where the intense competitive element in one of Europe's basketball hotbeds kicks in.

Not only was last season's title race the most exciting in recent years, no fewer than 10 of the 14 A1 league teams will do battle across the continent this season, with runners-up Olympiacos and Aris Salonica joining Pana in the Euroleague.

While those three will spearhead Greece's bid for European glory, a lot of attention will be focused around the seven teams competing in the FIBA EuroCup and ULEB Cup competitions.

PAOK Marfin Salonica will lead Greece's EuroCup quintet along with AEK Athens, Maroussi, Olympia Larissa and Olympiada Patron.

PAOK have brought in former New Zealand coach Tab Baldwin and have revamped almost their entire roster, scrapping what has appeared to have been a policy of heavy investment in Serbian players.

Baldwin is the fourth American coach in PAOK's history and his expected leading man in the coming campaign will be long-range marksman Lee Humphrey.

The 23-year-old guard from Tennessee has won the NCAA Division championship with Florida in the last two seasons, hitting 113 shots from behind the arc in both campaigns.

His shooting accuracy, allied with the powerful Frenchman Mamoud Diarra, will play a vital role in PAOK's fortunes.

AEK and Maroussi are also expected to mount a strong challenge for honors in the EuroCup under Angelos Koronios and Darko Russo, respectively.

AEK will look to powerful forward K'Zell Wesson for inspiration. The 30-year-old is fresh from helping GHP Bamberg clinch the German Bundesliga last season.

Russo has a more difficult task at Maroussi, who finished last season in eighth place - their lowest finish since 2001. The club is still coming to terms with the departure of legendary Greece boss Panagiotis Yannakis, who left the club at the end of the 2005-06 season.

Yannakis' former assistant in the national team Eleftheris Kakiouzis led the team last season but inconsistent form has seen him replaced by Russo.

Nine changes have been made from last season's roster, including the arrivals of experienced guard Nikos Boudouris and center Andreas Glyniadakis, formerly of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics.

At 36, Boudouris is the oldest member of the squad but he is one of the Greek league's toughest competitors and will be expected to give stability and provide the platform for the likes of Jason Parker and Travan Bryant to show their skills.

Last season's dramatic title race has raised expectations of a tougher season for Panathinaikos, who were taken to the wire by Pini Gershon's ever-improving Olympiacos. Gershon has added 12 new faces to his team, the most recent of which is NBA big-man Marc Jackson. The 32-year-old center has replaced Lawrence Roberts, who was released by the A1 League runners-up.

Despite the lure of what he described as "silly money", Chris Webber rejected an offer of between $10-12 million and decided to stay in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons.

All eyes will be on Jasikevicius when Pana host A1 newcomers Rethymno of Crete on Saturday.

The 31-year-old guard, who was met by around 1,000 Panathinaikos fans at Athens Eleftheris Venizelos on his arrival in the summer, is Greece's highest paid sportsman, earning a reported $10 million over two years.

But Jasikevicius, who is nicknamed Saras, insisted that it was not the hefty salary package that attracted him to Panathinaikos.

"It's true that I have been made a big offer but this did not play any role," he said.

"I don't feel any pressure from anyone. I am the only one that puts pressure on myself. I am not affected by others."

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