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I have a really good feeling about this team

At the moment CSKA is without Nenad Krstic on duty with his national team. And, naturally, injured Milos Teodosic, Andrey Vorontsevich, Vitaly Fridzon and Evgeny Voronov do not practice as well. Still, there’re a lot of things going on, and the biggest focus right now is probably on the newcomers who joined the team this summer.

So far, Kyle Hines and Jeremy Pargo have shown exactly what we need from them – talent, physical toughness and a lot of personality. They both have that innate ability to lead, so now that we put them alongside other natural leaders on the roster, like Victor Khryapa and Alexander Kaun, together they set a really high tone for CSKA practices. And that’s something you need in order to play at the highest level. You’ve got to have a lot of effort, intensity, desire to improve as a team and good communication at practice. Hopefully, with new additions we’ll be better in this department from now on.

Kyle Hines is a truly special player. He’s one of very few guys to win back-to-back Euroleague titles. And if CSKA happens to go all the way this year, he’ll become only the second player ever – after Sarunas Jasikevicius, I believe – to win it three times in a row. Yet when I look at him, I see a person who doesn’t just dwell on past success. He’s eager to reach new heights, add new silverware to his trophy case. That says a lot about his mentality.

Kyle Hines is a truly special player. He’s one of very few guys to win back-to-back Euroleague titles

Last season clearly showed what we needed to improve. And all our summer signings – Vitaly Fridzon, Jeremy and Kyle – were made with that goal in mind. We had great statistics, showed resolve in winning our Top 16 group and then in the Euroleague play-off series. Still, there was an unacceptable number of up-and-down stretches as well. And that should be attributed to the mental approach to the games, as well as mental toughness and discipline.

We actually did quite well in other departments. We had a lot of creativity and relied on sheer talent to get us through difficult times. We also played hard in many games, just not all of them. And a team that wants to be great has to be tough every day. Championship teams stand out because they’re ready to fight through adversity every time it comes up, not just when they feel like it. We’ve already seen some encouraging signs in the VTB league play-offs, when our team really came together and showed desire and determination.

We have all the reasons to hope that our three newcomers will help us improve in this area. They’re known for their will and mental toughness as much as for their talent. They’ll help us perform well and prepare well, which is also important.

Now, I’ve been also impressed with the confidence-related turnaround I saw in our second-year guys Aaron Jackson and Vlado Micov. Last year when they joined the team, they were rather insecure trying to figure out their roles and wondering whether teammates, coaches, management and fans were going to like them. But after their strong play late in the season, especially in the VTB league play-offs, those worries seem to be gone for good. They feel well-liked and respected, they’re confident and ready to go. Vlado is in much better physical shape as compared to the same stage of last season when he was coming off a long rehab, and Jack really benefited from playing a lot in the USA this summer.

I’m hopeful we’ll show quality basketball and, more importantly, display chemistry and mental toughness right from the start

I have a really good feeling about this team. I’m hopeful we’ll show quality basketball and, more importantly, display chemistry and mental toughness right from the start.

We have a lot of versatility, and every game we’ll have to find right combinations of players that will make opponents uncomfortable. Hopefully we’ll have a set starting five that won’t change much over the course of the season and will serve as a basis for the team. But other than that, we have to be able to adjust, have to find that flexibility.

The talent here is more than enough to carry us through injuries should they occur. On the opposite side, we need everybody to accept the fact that sometimes they won’t get as much playing time as they desire. This is on the coaching staff, by the way. We’re the ones who have to make sure those sacrifices are made.

Speaking about forthcoming Euroleague season, our group A features two clear-cut favorites to reach Final Four and then win it all – Barcelona and Fenerbahce Ulker. Both clubs put together huge rosters with numerous great scorers on them. It’ll be a challenge from the start, and once again I think teams with better chemistry will prevail here.

Going from the top down, Nanterre and Partizan also seem to have the ambition to make it from the group, and Budivelnik has put together a competent roster. Our fans will definitely think those three opponents are piece of cake compared to Barcelona and Ulker but I have to disagree.

Looking at the rest of the landscape, first of all we catch some of the usual suspects. Both clubs from Athens aren’t going anywhere, Maccabi will contend, and a bunch of Spanish clubs led by Real Madrid all have every right to think they can make it to the Final Four.

We have a lot of versatility, and every game we’ll have to find right combinations of players that will make opponents uncomfortable

By the way, I wouldn’t overlook Khimki. They’ve gone through some changes but managed to retain bigger part of their core, and they added a very strong point guard in Mike Green who’ll be a good replacement for Planinic. Add to the mix their familiarity with the coach and the system, and here’s one club definitely capable of exceeding expectations. I think they have what it takes to fight through the Euroleague qualification and then make some noise in the group.

All in all, given the starting disposition I believe it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll have a major surprise this year. It’s just too difficult to, say, repeat what Partizan pulled off when they reached that Final Four in Paris in 2010. Strong clubs got even stronger over the summer, so it’ll be even harder for anyone outside the elite group to challenge them.

The initial part of the season could be tricky though. This is the time when underdogs tend to play well, because they don’t have to try to match the same level of expectations as big guns. And favorites have to be aware of that – we all remember what happened several years back when CSKA dropped its first Euroleague game to Milano after returning from the USA trip and then just couldn’t get the season back on track. We didn’t even reach Top 16 that season. Such scenarios have to be avoided. We need to show we’re for real from the start.

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