7 Hot Starts That Shocked The League

Over the first four weeks of the season, two teams have shocked the league, racing to better-than-expected-records. Tsmoki-Minsk is off to a 3-1 start after making several smart free-agent moves and improving on defense. Nymburk (4-1) has also been a surprise. Since bringing back former head coach Ronen Ginzburg and signing Michael Dixon and Howard Sant-Roos, the Czechs are undefeated at home, including a win over Lokomotiv-Kuban.

Can Tsmoki-Minsk and Nymburk keep up the pace over a grueling seven-month regular season?

VTB-League.com looks back at seven teams that raced out to fast starts, breaking down the reasons for their success as well as how each team fared over the long haul.

Azovmash (Ukraine) in 2011-12

Starting Five: Ratko Varda - Radoslav Rancik, Artur Drozdov - Ricky Minard, George Young
Starting Record:

The previous season, Azovmash surprised everyone by reaching the Final Four. Entering the 2011-12 campaign, however, there were some reasons for concern. Azovmash had lost several key players, including regular season MVP Ramel Curry, the brains and heart of the team. Plus, after the Final Four breakthrough, Azovmash was no longer an underdog. Now teams would be gunning for the Ukrainians in every game.
Nevertheless, Azovmash was once again the talk of the league in the opening month. Offseason additions George Young, Radoslav Rancik, Vladimir Golubovich and Ricky Minard adapted quickly and did an adequate job replacing the players that had left. After dropping the first game of the season to Prokom, Azovmash went on a mini-run, defeating Lietuvos Rytas, Nymburk and Minsk-2006.

Final Result: 6th place in the group (8-8)

The good times didn't last forever. Mariupol enjoyed success against the bottom of the league, but against fellow playoff hopefuls, the Ukrainians were not always up to the task. The team also had a lot of turnover at center and struggled to keep Ricky Minard happy. The low point came in a home game vs. CSKA, when Azovmash scored a league-worst 37 points. Despite these problems, Azovmash still had a chance to make the postseason, missing out by one game.

Astana (Kazakhstan) in 2012-13

Starting Five: David Simon - Anton Ponomarev, Branko Cvetcovic - Rawle Marshall, Jerry Johnson
Starting Record:

An ambitious Astana team pulled off an upset in the very first game of the season, beating Lietuvos Rytas. Astana's American trio of Johnson, Marshall and Simon quickly established themselves as the leaders on the court and got the team on one page. Subsequent wins over Azovmash and Krasnye Krylia further suggested that this could be a special season for Astana.

Final Result: 5th place in the group (10-8), advanced to first round of the playoffs

Of course, Astana struggled with consistency, especially after big wins at home. But the Kazakhs held onto 5th place in the group and advanced to the postseason for the first time. Astana faced another surprise team in the first round: VEF Riga. The series came down to home-court advantage, which belonged to the Latvians. Incidentally, Astana's current head coach Ramunas Butautas coached VEF in that series.

VEF (Latvia) in 2012-13

Starting Five: Antanas Kavaliauskas - Kaspars Berzins, Will Daniels - Kristaps Janicenoks, E.J. Rowland
Starting Record:

VEF set the tone in the first game of the season, beating a talented Triumph team at home and didn't look back, also defeating Zalgiris and Nizhny Novgorod to start 6-2.

In hindsight, this was a very talented VEF squad. E.J. Rowland, who would be named regular season MVP in the VTB United League, ran the point. Elsewhere, the squad boasted players like Will Daniels, Kaspars Berzins, Antanas Kavaliauskas and future ACB star Dairis Bertans.

Final Result: 4th place in the group (11-7), advanced to playoff quarterfinals

Riga ultimately finished 4th in the group and eliminated Astana in the first round of the playoffs. That set up a quarterfinal series with Khimki. Worn down by the long season and battling sickness, VEF failed to give Khimki much of a fight. Nonetheless, fans will always remember the breakout season and the star players it produced.

Krasny Oktyabr (Russia) in 2013-14

Starting Five: Marcus Cousin - Cuthbert Victor, Igor Zamansky - Randy Culpepper, Willie Deane
Starting Record:

No one expected much from the league newcomers. But the fans in Volgograd were hungry for big-time basketball and spurred Oktyabr to a surprising start. Led by the explosively athletic Randy Culpepper, Volgograd's high-flying offense quickly became the talk of the league. The season started in Minsk where Krasny Oktyabr defeated Tsmoki-Minsk in a wild overtime game, 113-112, and ambitious club president Dmitry Gerasimenko began dreaming of even bigger upsets and a playoff berth.

Final Result: 6th place in the group (8-10), advanced to first round of playoffs

Gerasimenko would not be disappointed. Oktyabr finished the season strong (8-10), the final team to reach the postseason from Group B. Matched up against Lokomotiv-Kuban in the first round, Volgograd gave the Railwaymen a good fight, but came up short in the end. All in all, not a bad introduction to the VTB United League.

Donetsk (Ukraine) in 2013-14

Starting Five: Marco Killingsworth - Ben McCauley, Denis Yakovlev - Bernard King, Georgy Tsintsadze
Starting Record:

After struggling the year before despite signing several big names, Donetsk decided on a different approach. The club made a gamble on up-tempo basketball and signed players accordingly. Led by Bernard King at point and athletic big men Marco Killingsworth and Ben McCauley, Donetsk was a force in the league that season.

Final Result: 9th place in the group (8-10)

After winning four of the first five games, Donetsk lost some of its momentum. There were still occasional upsets, including a win against Lokomotiv-Kuban, and the team remained in the playoff zone, but Donetsk did not look like a contender. Then disaster struck: due to financial difficulties, the club was forced to withdraw from competition with three games left in the season.

Krasnye Krylia (Russia) in 2014-15

Starting Five: Kervin Bristol - Kaspars Berzins, Sergei Toporov - Victor Zaryazhko, Scottie Reynolds
Starting Record:

Expectations were low for Samara entering the season. The team lost all of its key players in the offseason, as well as head coach Sergei Bazarevich, who took over at Lokomotiv-Kuban. Krasnye Krylia was also unable to get much done in the offseason. Outside of David Jelinek and Kaspars Berzins, the rest of the newcomers were not well known. The team's solid start came as a shock. Samara won three of its first five games under Boris Sokolovsky with Scottie Reynolds establishing himself as a legitimate star in the first month of the season.

Final Result: 16th place (7-23)

Unfortunately, Samara couldn't maintain its momentum. A thin roster, injuries and financial trouble made it nearly impossible to stay competitive over the long season. Despite beating UNICS, Enisey and Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnye Krylia had little luck against teams at the bottom of the standings. By the end of the season, all of the foreign players had left and Samara was forced to call up several youth players. Alexander Gudumak, Evgeny Fidii and Viktor Zaryazhko did everything they could, but nothing could prevent Krylia's collapse.

Kalev (Estonia) in 2014-15

Starting Five: Frank Elegar - Rolands Freimanis, Gregor Arbet - Rain Veideman, Scott Machado
Starting Record:

At first, opposing teams did not take Kalev seriously. After all, the Estonian club had never competed for a playoff berth and rarely won on the road. Two straight losses to start the season only confirmed suspicions.

That made the team's transformation was all the more shocking. Point guard Scott Machado and center Frank Elegar were nearly unstoppable in the pick-and-roll, while Gregor Arbet became one of the league's deadliest snipers. Kalev won three straight after the 0-2 start and continued to surprise over the following months.

Final Result: 9th place (13-17)

Kalev played quality basketball all season, both on defense and offense. Machado, Elegar and Freimanis gave the Estonians the starpower they had lacked in years past. With three games left to play, Kalev looked certain to make the postseason. A strong finish from Astana, however, and three straight losses meant the Estonians just missed out.