Lev Tigai's Blog: St. Petersburg's Decemberists Make It To Spring

In my last post from 2015, I had the temerity to suggest that Zenit, 2nd in the VTB United League standings at the time, wouldn't last long in the leading group. As we can see know, I shouldn't have doubted them. It's already late March and only one month remains until the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg's Decemberists have no plans to abandon the Senate Square and go into exile with the league's middle-of-the-pack teams. After a 56-point blowout of Astana on Wednesday, Zenit has moved into 3rd place, leapfrogging Lokomotiv-Kuban in the standings, one of the top defensive teams in Europe!

Yes, it wasn't an easy winter for the St. Petersburg club. At one point, the team did drop out of the top four, which guarantees home-court advantage in the opening round. But Vasily Karasev's club came alive again in March, picking up five wins in six games, with the only loss coming to CSKA by four points.

Latvian center Kaspars Berzins has clearly provided a boost to the St. Petersburg club. He came over from Nizhny Novgorod, replacing injured Canadian big man Kyle Landry. Another newcomer is also adjusting to the club, American forward Omar Thomas. Karasev's inventiveness on defense, for which his teams are always known, is another defining characteristic. So I sincerely ask for forgiveness, dear Decemberists. I must admit that I was wrong...

It's already clear that Zenit will not drop out of the top five, though one final battle with Loko and Khimki for 3rd and 4th place remains. The club that ends up in 3rd will avoid meeting the league's top regular-season team (almost certainly CSKA) until the finals, while the 4th-place team gets home-court advantage in the quarterfinals vs. the 5 seed. In other words, these teams are trying to improve their odds of reaching the semifinals, with 3rd place having 70-80% odds and 5th place just 30-40%.

Let's compare the remaining schedule for each of these three teams.

Zenit (16-5): home vs. Lokomotiv, UNICS, Nizhny Novgorod, Tsmoki-Minsk, Kalev, away vs. Khimki, Avtodor, Nymburk, Kalev.
Lokomotiv (18-6): home vs. Krasny Oktyabr, Enisey, VEF, away vs. UNICS, Zenit, Tsmoki-Minsk.
Khimki (17-8): home vs. Zenit, Tsmoki-Minsk, away vs. Nymburk, Enisey, VEF.

As you can see, St. Petersburg's calendar is quite challenging. Nine games in four weeks, with just two (both vs. Kalev) where Zenit will be heavily favored. On the other hand, Khimki, despite losing four of its last five and changing coaches, could certainly finish the season with five straight wins. That's what makes the upcoming showdown vs. Zenit especially compelling.

By the way, in the event of a tie, Moscow Region will likely get home-court advantage vs. St. Petersburg and Krasnodar. Khimki defeated Zenit by 31 on the road and it's difficult to imagine Karasev's club winning by that margin in Moscow Region. Khimki already split the season series vs. Loko, with both teams winning by 13, but Dusko Ivanovic's club enjoys a big-time advantage in the overall point differential (+365 vs. +280).

It's a complicated situation, but I'm going to take a risk and bet on Lokomotiv. About the only thing that might distract the Railwaymen is their parallel date in the Euroleague quarterfinals. Khimki is unlikely to qualify for the Euroleague postseason, while Zenit got eliminated from European competition in early March. As for the likely first-round matchup in the VTB United League playoffs between St. Petersburg and Moscow Region, I'll hold off on any predictions. After all, I've had the bad luck of underestimating Zenit once before...

Fewer and fewer questions remain in the VTB League standings. The top-eight has virtually been decided, while CSKA and UNICS are close to locking down 1st and 2nd. There's one other battle remaining among the bottom three teams in the playoff zone: Avtodor, Nizhny Novgorod and Nymburk. It's possible someone in that group will try to set up a first-round series with Zenit. But would there be any point to that? The St. Petersburg Decemberists have already proved that it's not a good idea to underestimate their revolutionary capabilities.

Lev Tigai,
sportfakt.ru writer