Final Four: CSKA, Zenit, UNICS Or Khimki?

Final Four: CSKA, Zenit, UNICS Or Khimki?

The Final Four put a fresh spin on VTB League basketball. Dmitry Gerchikov explores each team’s case for bringing home the gold.


Both within the post-Soviet space and throughout Europe, using a Final Four to decide the outcome of a basketball season has always stirred up controversy. The skeptics have solid arguments, pointing to the possibility of a fluke outcome and the regular season;s diminished value.

But every time a Final Four rolls around, fans and experts can’t help but embrace the excitement. These all-encompassing three-day weekends with a Hunger Games-esque edge give fans a wonderful escape and ratchet up the intensity on the court ten-fold. It can take weeks for the Final Four high to wear off. 

So it’s not surprising to see so much hype and anticipation surrounding the upcoming showdown at the VTB Ice Palace. The only question is which of these teams will go home happy? Let’s craft an argument in favor of each team.

CSKA Moscow: Offense

The League’s top offense is putting up ridiculous numbers. Dimitris Itoudis had the only team that averaged more than 90 points per game throughout the season, finishing with an insane 94.5 ppg. Moscow has so many options on offense, both when they use a classic and more modern lineup. If Nando De Colo is clicking, too, the team’s options effectively double. The Frenchman has an unearthly feel for the game, knocking down nearly 50% of his field-goal attempts, while his decisions are always calculated and smart. 

This is a good time to also commend CSKA’s excellent use of its big men’s passing. Kyle Hines has grown by leaps and bounds when it comes to moving the ball, while Will Clyburn is able to open up space on offense, too. Considering Moscow’s weapons on the perimeter, you can only sympathize with the opposition. Even when other teams begin to break down CSKA’s defense, the Red and Blue have no trouble turning the game into a shootout, where they are usually too much to overcome.

Zenit St. Petersburg: Adrenaline

Vasily Karasev’s team already met its season goal by reaching the Final Four. But it would be a mistake to write off the St. Petersburg’s chances in Moscow. Zenit defeated CSKA once during the regular season and will show no fear vs. the reigning champs on Friday. At the end of the day, the Blue, White and Sky Blue have nothing to lose, while a victory would give them the upset of the year and a shot at winning the championship. 

The boys from the city on the Neva should be amped and ready to go. This is a chance to turn heads around the League and the continent. Anyone who plays a part in beating the Army Men will draw instant attention from scouts. As for Sergey Karasev, CSKA might even be a future home. There are numerous examples of the Army Men poaching players from opposing clubs who gave them trouble in previous campaigns.

Even the skeptics expect Zenit to come out firing. St. Petersburg loves scoring, pushing the tempo and lighting it up from deep, which the fans love. All it takes is one star catching fire to give the opposition trouble. Pure adrenaline may be all Zenit needs to take home a win.

Khimki Moscow Region: Star

Georgios Bartzokas has been criticized all season for making the team too dependent on Shved, e.g. without Shved, the ball doesn’t move as well and no one’s able to finish plays. The Greek took every barb without flinching and stuck to his plan. As the last few months have shown, he was absolutely right. Despite an abundance of injuries and a critical lack of balance on the roster, Moscow Region reached the EuroLeague playoffs for the first time in club history, while keeping its championship hopes alive in the VTB United League.

Bartzokas’ use of Shved, Europe’s top scorer, was the biggest factor in the team’s success. By freeing up Shved on the defensive end, he was able to help him make the biggest impact possible on the other end. At the same time, he gave him freedom to create. The impact exceeded everyone’s expectations. Shved not only demonstrated an ability to score at will, he was magnificent running the offense. Following the series with Kuban, the Russian should have earned an Oscar for Best Director, given the ease with which he set up teammate after teammate for success…

But Khimki did not live on Shved alone. With his centers out of commission, Bartzokas made up for the roster’s lack of size with aggressive perimeter players. Gill, Honeycutt and even Vyaltsev turned in strong individual performances, especially on the glass. Thomas, meanwhile, became the primary option in pick-and-rolls, where he thrived. 

Overall, if Khimki was discussed in the context of team-oriented basketball, then it was exclusively to discuss defense. But even there, Bartzokas was able to find success with an individual approach. Instead of risking switches every time in big games, Khimki relied on individual match-ups, where Moscow Region was able to utilize the versatility of its forwards. The results were impressive, as evidenced by Khimki’s presence in the upcoming semifinals. 

UNICS Kazan: Uber-versatility

Dimitris Priftis is a modern-day hero. While other clubs gobbled up star players or tried to build around a single star, the UNICS coach opted for perfect balance on his roster. Nobody played more than 29 minutes per game in the regular season, no one took the bulk of the shots (three different players averaged double digits), and no one player had an oversized impact on either defense or offense. 

Tatarstan has no noticeable weaknesses to go with an interchangeable, flexible roster. Two losses on the season–to the reigning champs, no less–underscore Priftis’ success in assembling a deep roster. His job looks even more impressive when you consider he had less than a year to bring everything together. 

Obviously, there are two sides to any coin. When you don’t have a superstar and the team needs rescuing, it can be difficult to mount a comeback. UNICS lacked someone like Shved in Game 2 vs. Nizhny Novgorod, when the seven seed sprung an upset. The team struggled again with leadership in Game 3, barely escaping with a win in overtime. But Priftis, as experience has shown, recognized the potential threat to his system and developed a Plan B, showing a willingness to give the reigns to Jamar Smith, Melvin Ejim, or Quino Colom, when necessary. This strategy makes it nearly impossible for opponents to guess who might erupt on offense on any given night. Even when the Tatar club is down big, bet against them at your own peril. 

Dmitry Gerchikov