Bilbao’s unique path from host to contender

2023-01-29T15:36:09+00:00 2023-01-29T15:37:28+00:00.

Giannis Askounis

29/Jan/23 15:36

Keep an eye on Surne Bilbao and the attempt to extend past the Round of 16 of the Basketball Champions League

By Johnny Askounis/

The team-first mentality of Surne Bilbao making things happen in the Basketball Champions League is a treat, not only for the supporters of the team located in the Basque Country.

The second campaign in the Champions League started in Group D of the Regular Season. Despite losing twice at home, Bilbao prevailed in all three games on the road, including the convincing Gameday 5 win against Bahcesehir Koleji in Ulker Sports Arena to clinch a berth in the Round of 16. The 4-2 record topped the tight group at the conclusion of the double-legged round-robin schedule.

The prize was moving directly to the Round of 16, bypassing the grueling battles of the Play-In stage. Tipping off the next six-game slate, Jaume Ponsarnau’s side defeated Darussafaka for a 1-0 start in Group L. “It was a close game. I think the key was setting the tone on our intensity and the rhythm of the game,” noted former UNC Greensboro standout Francis Alonso in the postgame press conference Wednesday evening. Describing a team effort, additionally confirming the recurring theme of the 2022-23 season.

Already a massive improvement from the BCL debut and the early exit from the 2020-21 season to Bilbao Arena hosting the 2022 Final Four and masterfully counterbalancing the club’s absence from the 2021-22 season. Rewinding further back displays the rich team history, notable runs in continental and domestic competitions, and above all the importance of representing the city for over two decades.

Following KAS Bilbao and Caja Bilbao, the current version of the top Bilbao outfit was founded in 2000. Four years later, in 2004 it was promoted to the first division of Spain, widely accepted as the strongest domestic league across Europe. Establishing itself as a force in the ACB and making the Finals in 2011, from there enjoyed long runs at the continental level, specifically in the 2011-12 season of EuroLeague and the 2012-13 season of EuroCup. Financial and additional issues led to decline and eventually relegation in 2018 but that wasn’t it for the proud basketball fans of the city.

Fighting back and the Basketball Champions League

Introducing himself as a head coach, former player Alex Mumbru took over in 2018. Under his guidance, Bilbao immediately bounced back into Spain’s Liga Endesa and also returned to European club competitions debuting in the Basketball Champions League through the 2020-21 campaign. However, the 2-4 record was an eliminating tally at the end of the Regular Season, a disappointing conclusion.

Despite not actually competing in 2021-22, home venue Bilbao Arena became the first neutral host of the Final Four. Therefore, Bilbao sparked the confident return to the initial season-ending format after a Final Eight concluded the two previous seasons, both affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Lenovo Tenerife, among the Group L opponents, won it all in the birthplace of long-serving head coach Txus Vidorreta for the second BCL title in team history.

Ponsarnau, 51, succeeded Mumbru taking over head coaching duties signaling a new era in Bilbao. The first BCL season with a new play-caller was immediately struck by injury setbacks with both Andrew Goudelock and Tomeu Rigo forced to the sidelines. However, the Men in Black won Group D and enjoyed a triumphant start in Group L.

Fan favorite Ludvig Hakanson is the leading star but it’s certainly not a one-man show. Four players averaging a double-digit PIR and seven more sliding over 5.0 demonstrate the depth of the squad, a must for plenty of potential solutions in the demanding and competitive field such as the Champions League. In a swift turnaround from host to contending for the championship.

The Basque derby

The sports tradition in the city is mainly attributed to Athletic Bilbao, a team known to rely solely on Basque players and very successful in football, the standard sport in Bilbao and also in most of the rest of Spain. But basketball is right up there in second place among the most popular team sports.

A large chunk of local fan interest goes to the Basque derby, namely the games versus Cazoo Baskonia based in Vitoria-Gasteiz, 66 kilometers far from Bilbao. The head-to-head stats are not very friendly but Bilbao has enjoyed several positive outcomes over the years, including prevailing in both EuroLeague encounters of the 2011-12 season.

Making the most of any opportunities is the way back up to the elite. The Champions League provides a platform for teams to shine in European club competitions and for promising prospects making a name for themselves, Bilbao adds yet another crucial ingredient to the recipe, the team-first mentality going a long way in winning games.

Besides Dacka and the home win in Gameday 1, and defending champion Tenerife, Bilbao will also take on yet another ACB rival in UCAM Murcia moving through the six-game round-robin schedule. The top two teams will progress to the Quarterfinals and the top seed will additionally earn homecourt advantage in the following best-of-three series. Multiple domestic battles at the continental level and four teams all having a clear shot for the next round, a must-watch group.

Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League

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