Ryan Toolson:
We're In Shock From Finishing 3rd!

April MVP and Zenit guard Ryan Toolson spoke with VTB-League.com and Sport-Express.

The American explained how his team was able finish 3rd in the regular season, described Vasily Karasev's personality and admitted that he's been affected by the trade sanctions against Russia.

This is Toolson's second MVP award of the season. He picked up the first one in October. The 31-year-old guard initially had to adjust to life in St. Petersburg on his own because his wife and children had trouble with their visas. At the time, Toolson credited his success to the fact that basketball was the only thing that kept him from missing his family. Now he needed a new explanation.

- Family is my main source of happiness, - said Toolson. - No one's come up with a better stress reliever from practice and games than hanging out with your wife and kids, in my opinion. In their own way, my loved ones help me perform at a high level on the court.

- The prize for October MVP was the first such award in your career. Now you've picked up a second. It looks like you've found a great fit for yourself in St. Petersburg.
- You could say that, though we had to refind ourselves several times throughout the course of the regular season. First, we lost Kyle Landry for the entire season, perhaps Zenit's most important player. Then Evgeny Valiev, who also did a lot for the team, suffered the same fate. We needed time to learn how to play without them.

Second, due to the team's participation in the Russian Cup, the foreign players had a really long break, which affected our chemistry. The Russians came back tired, while the foreigners were starved for game experience. Then we added Kaspars Berzins and Omar Thomas and needed to take some time to help them adapt to our system.

- How much credit does the coach get for your personal success?
- A ton. In order to play 30+ minutes every game, you need your coach to believe in you. Karasev doesn't just trust me, he lets me play the style of basketball I'm most comfortable with. I think my teammates would all say the same. In my opinion, Karasev has a great feel for the team, which is why we managed to achieve so much during the regular season.

- Did you connect quickly with Karasev?
- He's very easy to talk to. Karasev has a great sense of humor and he always translates his jokes from Russian into English. If there's a lot of tension at practice, he can lighten things up and turn a conflict into a joke. As a rule, I'm in a great mood when I leave practice. Overall, he's one of the first coaches in my career with whom my relationship extends beyond work.

- Zenit finished the season with wins over UNICS and Lokomotiv. That probably gave some added confidence prior to the series vs. Avtodor...
- I don't think there could have been a better warm-up for the playoffs. Of course, we understand that UNICS had nothing at stake when we played and protected its stars, while Lokomotiv traveled to St. Petersburg without Anthony Randolph following an exhausting series with Barcelona. But they were still excellent wins, which helped us gain a lot of momentum and shock everyone, including ourselves, by finishing 3rd.

- What do you expect from Saratov?
- They're a very tough opponent. Our last loss came in Saratov. We were in the midst of a really tough stretch, then, however. We played CSKA and Astana at home, then traveled to Khimki before going directly to Avtodor. Saratov took advantage of our fatigue.
I'm confident it will be an interesting battle. There will be great duels at almost every position: Dowdell vs. Stoll, Pushkov vs. Zabelin or Klimenko, Timma vs. Peterson, me vs. Chappell. But I think the overall picture of the game, not the individual matchups, will decide everything. If we can take control of the tempo, Avtodor won't have an easy time.

- You've got 28 games in the VTB United League. Who's made life most difficult for you?
- If you're talking about offense, then it's Keith Langford of UNICS, the league's top scorer. When he's hot, he can do whatever he wants on the court. He's almost impossible to stop. We experienced that first-hand in Kazan, when he nearly single-handedly buried us in the first half. I'd also mention Nando De Colo. I especially remember his performance in St. Petersburg. With a few minutes to go, Zenit was leading, but then he came back in the game and took control. He scored 26 points in 20 minutes, which is incredibly efficent.

As for defense, I've had a tough time against a lot of opponents. I'd single out Sergey Bykov and Evgeny Voronov of Loko most recently. Their physical man-to-man defense can make life difficult for any scorer. Overall, I've had the most trouble against teams that play excellent help defense, big clubs like CSKA, UNICS, Loko and Khimki. They double-team you, prepare traps, force you to get rid of the ball and don't let you get in rhythm.

- If your opponent manages to stop you, it's usually a big issue for the team. Does the team's dependency put a lot of pressure on you?
- In my opinion, that was only an issue at the start of the season. Since then, the team has gotten much better. Everyone has found a role. I also realized for myself that I don't have to do everything on offense. If I'm not having success, we've got plenty of great players that can pick up the slack. For example, against Loko I couldn't get a single shot to fall in the first half. But we still led, thanks to Dowdell and Timma.

- You hate to miss free throws, knocking down 116 of 120 attempts between the VTB United League and Eurocup. Are you happy with that result?
- You know, I thought that even the shots I missed should have gone in... Overall, I try to maintain a 90% mark from the free-throw line throughout my career. This season, I've done it easily, so I'm happy with myself so far.

- At the start of the season, you had great things to say about St. Petersburg. Has anything changed in half a year?
- I've only gotten to like it more! I got lucky with my place of work, given this is probably the most European city in Russia. My family is also very comfortable here. My wife goes to the gym and attends an international women's club, where she's made a lot of interesting friends. The kids study at an English-language school. They like it a lot there and have made a bunch of new friends. We hang out with their parents and often get a babysitter so we can go out.

Overall, I haven't had any culture shock. Maybe just the cold. The last time I wore winter clothing was in college, seven years ago. Of course, I got rid of it a long time ago, because I played in Izmir, then in Treviso, then the Canary Islands and Malaga. Before traveling to Russia, my family and I got decked out with warm clothes, but we underestimated the St. Petersburg weather. We had to buy mittens, thick wool socks and thermal underwear once we arrived.

- Did you have to adjust to anything in terms of food? Some things you're used to may not be available because of the sanctions.
- My wife takes care of the cooking, but as far as I know it's not so much that you can't get certain products, but that the prices for them are astronomical. That's not fun, but it's okay. As for the food we eat, my wife usually makes American or Italian food. But every few weeks we eat something Russian. For example, we became friends with some St. Petersburg natives and when they come to visit, we make pelmeni and vareniki.

- Most foreign players make friends with other foreigners...
- Every one chooses for themselves. Maybe it's a stereotype that Russians are cold. But I've already come to realize that it's just a cultural thing. If a person doesn't know you, then he won't talk to you. No one will smile at you on the streeet or chat on public transportation. In the USA, that's seen as being anti-social. But that doesn't reflect at all on the true character of the Russian people because as soon as you get to know someone and begin spending time with them, you immediately feel their warmth and openness. Personally, I think that Russians would be willing to give a friend the shirt off their back.

- It seems like you've really adapted to St. Petersburg. Do you plan to stay another season?
- In my contract, I have the option to extend one more season, if the club agrees. But I'm not looking ahead yet. All my thoughts are on the playoffs and I won't make a decision about the future until it's over.