Fast Break: Why Zenit Could Surprise Again

Zenit reached the VTB United League semifinals in its second season in the League, coming within one win of qualifying for the Euroleague. Valery Gitarkin breaks down why St. Petersburg could surprise once again and repeat as breakout team of the season.


Every team hopes to win when it takes the court, but not every club sets very lofty ambitions to open the season. For example, Zenit's football club tries to win every game and every competition it enters. Starting its third season, the basketball club appears to be setting itself the same challenge. Instead of talking about "annual progress" and "steady momentum," the front office had a much more specific goal: reaching the Euroleague. Last season, the club advanced to the VTB United League semifinals. Now they hope to make the finals and qualify for the Euroleague, while making noise in the Eurocup.


Many European teams, including the biggest clubs, undergo big changes over the summer, which inevitably affects the roster, coaching staff, and ultimately the style of play and team philosophy. Of course, it requires a lot of time and energy to put the pieces together, get comfortable, and figure out team chemistry. That, in turn, has an impact on the court, creating extra pressure and additional stress in the second half of the season when playoff seeds are being decided.

Zenit won't have to worry about that. The team's key players are back and know what Vasily Karasev expects of them. Zenit will play aggressive defense and try to create lots of fast-break opportunities. Almost everyone in the rotation can shoot from outside, including the big men, which helps create space and opportunities in the paint.

Vasily Karasev, a firm believer in modern basketball and 2015-16 League Coach of the Year, will have to find a way to share the ball between Sergey Karasev, Janis Timma, and Ryan Toolson, while integrating Stefan Markovich and getting the maximum out of Aaron White. But most coaches would love to be in Karasev's shoes. Unlike Lokomotiv-Kuban and Khimki, Zenit doesn't need to start from scratch or adapt to life under a new head coach.


Zenit knows a lot about rebuilding, especially on the fly. Last season, St. Petersburg got hit hard by the injury bug, especially in the frontcourt. Evgeny Valiev tore his ACL and captain Kyle Landry tore his achilles; ankle problems limited Andrei Desyatnikov's progress; while injuries to Toolson and Timma hurt the team in the semifinals vs. UNICS.

Karasev and co. are only finding out now to what extent Valiev and Landry have recovered from their injuries, but the return of the key frontcourt players makes the team stronger, regardless. After a bad string of luck in 2015-16, Zenit hopes to stay healthy for at least a couple seasons.

Zenit is gunning for the Euroleague, but hasn't made it yet, which means it won't have to run the same gauntlet as CSKA and UNICS. The new format for Europe's top competition, much like the League, features a true round-robin regular season, with team playing each opponent twice. That's a lot of big games over the course of the season. On the other hand, Zenit rivals Lokomotiv-Kuban and Khimki--Zenit fans, in any case, want to think of their team that way--are in the same boat, competing in the League and Eurocup.

St. Petersburg also has a unique scheduling situation because of the busy SIBUR Arena, playing eight home games and four road games in the first half, then the reverse to finish the season. It's tough to predict how the team will respond to the unusual format. Last season, Zenit played at home only three times in the VTB United League between November 22 and February 22. Nonetheless, the team went 5-4 against good competition during that stretch and ended 3rd in the standings. This year, Karasev's club has a good chance to start strong and create some separation in the standings, which could be very valuable when the team visits Kazan, Krasnodar, and Khimki in the spring.


Zenit finished third in the League in attendance last season. Rising ambitions, starpower, and hopes of a high playoff seed should attract extra attention. The move from modern SIBUR Arena to the Yubileyniy shouldn't hurt fan interest, especially since the renovated facility is easier to access.

Sergey Karasev

Sergey Karasev is entering the most challenging and demanding stretch of his career. The Russian national team player didn't stick in the NBA, struggling to earn playing time and getting sidelined by a serious injury. To make matters worse, he faced a backlash from the fans when he decided to return to Russia and play for his dad. Karasev also struggled at times in EuroBasket 2017 qualifying.

He hasn't let it get him down and maintains that he will be a leader on the squad. No matter what the critics say, the 22-year-old sniper has talent and the increased responsibility and confidence from the coaching staff should help him progress. People were also skeptical of Alexey Shved last season, but the former NBA guard became a leader at Khimki and the top Russian player in the League. Karasev will try to follow in his footsteps.


Karasev's arrival made the most headlines, but it wasn't the only move made by the front office. Zenit already has a solid core, bringing in Karasev to complement Toolson and Timma. This summer's activity attempted to address the team's balance and Stefan Markovic and Aaron White should be a perfect fit. Markovic, who won silver in Rio with Serbia, is sometimes blamed for not scoring much, but that shouldn't concern Karasev. The playmaker focuses on defense and distributing the ball, finding new seams in the halfcourt and bringing order to St. Petersburg's chaotic up-tempo offense.

NBA Draft selectee Aaron White can also provide value without hogging the ball. He's a quick, athletic forward who loves to run the fast break, shoot from outside, and drive the ball. He also doesn't mind doing the dirty work, making him a terrific role player. Pavel Sergeev will provide even more depth at the point guard position and provide some perimeter shooting. Russian forwards Evgeny Voitiuk and Alexander Razumov will bring more depth, if nothing else.


Zenit won't be a dark horse this season, but doesn't want to rest on its laurels and hopes to surprise once more. By retaining last season's core and signing talented new players, the ambitious collective hopes to reach greater heights this season. In just two years, the Blue-White-Sky Blues have built a foundation, acquired good talent, and now long to turn the League's Big Four into a Big Five.

Valery Gitarkin