Tinkering pays-off big time as AEK target Champions League title
As AEK prepare to host the FIBA Basketball Champions League, AGONAsport’s Peter Katsiris looks back at some of the personnel changes the club has made en route to a Final Four appearance…
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AEK will welcome the continent this weekend when the Athenians host the second-ever FIBA Basketball Champions League at the OAKA Olympic Indoor Hall, with the home supporters hopeful of a first-ever triumph for AEK in the competition.
In what has already been a memorable season for AEK following their triumph in the Greek Cup earlier this season, European glory is now in demand as AEK look to earn continental honors for the first time since hoisting the FIBA Saporta Cup during the 1999/2000 season.
AEK’s run to the Final Four sees the Athenians square-off against Spanish outfit UCAM Murcia in hopes of reaching the Final, and while anything but a tournament win will be seen as a disappointment, the fact the club have made such progress on the continent is no small feat.
A sluggish start to the season threatened to derail any chance of AEK’s success this campaign as the club looked to have peaked early with a semifinal defeat of Panathinaikos, seemingly at the expense of success in the Greek Basket League and the FIBA Champions League up ‘til that point.
An underwhelming 4-3 domestic record through the first seven games was only compounded by AEK’s dismal 3-4 run in the FIBA Champions League b early December, prompting AEK’s brass to initiate their first mid-season change with the dismissal of head coach Sotiris Manolopoulos.
AEK appointed Dragan Sakota as the replacement to Manolopoulos, with the Serbian coach marking the start of his third stint as coach of the Enosi with an emotional win over local rivals Olympiacos.
Under Sakota’s guidance, AEK’s form began to improve on both fronts as the Enosi climbed the Basket League standings while also plotting a way out of a difficult situation in Group C of the FIBA Champions League.
AEK’s ascendency was further aided by a handful of roster moves that saw the club raid the transfer market domestically and abroad with key acquisitions.
Among the first of those acquisitions was Kevin Punter, who made the move to Athens after leaving Rosa Radom – a side AEK encountered twice before the American guard made the move to the Greek capital. In his second stint in Greece following a stay with Lavrio during the 2016/2017 season, Punter has provided scoring depth and three-point shooting ability to the AEK lineup with most of his work coming off the bench in a supporting capacity.
AEK then proceeded to add veteran leadership as the Enosi poached Panagiotis Vassilopoulos on a free transfer from Basket League rivals Aris. Despite a difficult start to the season in Thessaloniki, Vassilopoulos, a native of Athens, quickly found his groove as a depth option for Sakota and AEK.
AEK’s final transaction via the transfer market proved to be the acquisition of Vince Hunter as the American made the move across the Atlantic after being demoted from the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies to the club’s G League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle. Hunter, who had a short stint with Panathinaikos in 2016, has added toughness to the AEK frontcourt and has quietly emerged as the preferred choice as starting center for the club.
AEK will be hoping that the addition of these three key pieces to the depth chart will pave the path to a maiden title in the FIBA Champions League as the club look to build on the success of their Greek Cup triumph earlier in the campaign.