By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - More games and bigger arenas will enable Europe's premier basketball competition to aim for NBA standards, Euroleague chief Jordi Bertomeu has vowed ahead of the new season starting on Thursday.
This month's warm-up games between Euroleague teams and NBA outfits suggest the gulf between the top sides from Europe and North America has narrowed, with Fenerbahce Istanbul pulling off a shock 97-91 win over 17-times NBA champions Boston Celtics.
Bertomeu, who met with NBA commissioner David Stern in Berlin shortly before local team Alba pushed 2011 champions Dallas Mavericks to the limit in an 89-84 defeat on Saturday, acknowledged that looking up to the NBA and playing against the league's top contenders has helped Europe to improve.
"These games are an opportunity to work with our NBA friends, share the experience and learn because they have already done many things that we want to do in our evolution as a professional league," Bertomeu told the 24-team Euroleague's official website (www.euroleague.net).
"We have different models, a different sports culture and of course different resources but we share the same vision about the importance of improving the quality of the game and the importance of basketball becoming a global sport.
"Specifically in this field I have to say that the NBA has been doing a terrific job. We have in front of us a very important Euroleague season with more games, more weeks and teams moving to bigger arenas, culminating in the Final Four in London."
The teams are divided into four groups of six in the preliminary stage and the top four from each group will advance into the last 16, where they will be divided into two groups of eight instead of four groups of four.
The top four teams from each of those groups, operating on a round-robin home and away system like the preliminary stage, will progress into the quarter-finals, whose winners will qualify for the Final Four in London's O2 Arena from May 10-12.
The upcoming season promises a finely balanced battle between a myriad of contenders, some of whom have had to fundamentally change their sides with players being lured to the glamour and higher level of the NBA.
However, champions Olympiakos Piraeus, who won the title with a memorable comeback to beat CSKA Moscow 62-61 in Istanbul last May, have kept the bulk of their roster with inspirational point guard Vassilis Spanoulis set to lead the charge again.
They have signed forward Stratos Perperoglu from bitter Athens rivals Panathinaikos, whose long-serving Serbian coach Zeljko Obradovic stepped down after winning 11 Greek and five Euroleague titles with the club.
He was followed by virtually all his stalwarts.
Six-time winners CSKA, who last won the competition in 2008, have lost forward Andrei Kirilenko and guard Aleksey Shved to the Minnesota Timberwolves but have welcomed back Italian coach Ettore Messina, who steered the Russian side to their last two Euroleague titles.
Messina has returned for a second spell in charge after coaching Real Madrid and stronger for the experience of a year-long stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was a consultant to head coach Mike Brown.
"I was able to work with great coaches and players and really enjoyed it but I missed head coaching and I feel blessed to work here again," Messina told the CSKA website (www.cskabasket.com).
"The NBA is a great league and environment but CSKA is an NBA-level club and I am looking forward to working with the few players who were here when I left four years ago as well as with the newcomers."
CSKA are at home to Lithuanians Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in Thursday's curtain-raiser while Olympiakos entertain Spain's Caja Laboral Vitoria and Fenerbahce take on CSKA's city rivals Khimki.
The pick of Friday's games should be a mouth-watering contest between eight-time winners Real Madrid and Panathinaikos while Barcelona, the 2010 champions, should have a comfortable start at home to Germany's Brose Baskets Bamberg.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)