Interview: Dimitris Itoudis, CSKA Moscow: ‘I cannot describe what it means to be in a Final Four’


CSKA Moscow head coach Dimitris Itoudis is in his fourth season with Russian superpower and has led the club to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in each of those seasons. Itoudis has continued CSKA’s winning tradition, which has seen it make an unprecedented 15 trips to the Final Four in the last 16 years. Itoudis’s individual success rivals that of CSKA; he is heading for his 12th Final Four appearance after eight as an assistant coach with Panathinaikos Athens, which he helped win five titles. However, after guiding CSKA to the best record in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season, the obstacles Itoudis and CSKA had to overcome in the playoffs against crosstown rival Khimki Moscow Region were different from any he had encountered before. In the end, Itoudis feels that surviving that series the way his team did makes it even stronger as they head to Belgrade, which he explained in the pre-Final Four interview. “That gave us a lot of extra confidence,” Itoudis told of the playoff series win despite missing All-EuroLeague First Team guard Nando De Colo and EuroLeague Best Defender Kyle Hines to injuries. “It proved once again how important is to have a deep roster of individuals ready to sacrifice for the good purpose, for the purpose of the team. This made us a better team, and brought players, coaches and management, all closer to each other.”

Hello Coach Itoudis, and congratulations on another campaign that saw CSKA return to the Final Four. It looked dominant from the outside and in the standings, but how was it on the inside, overcoming obstacles on daily basis from coach’s perspective?

“First of all, thank you for the congratulations. Another goal has been achieved, because going to the Final Four is a big thing, especially with the new EuroLeague format, playing a marathon of 35 possible games. This year it was 34 games, because all series finished 3-1. Four teams will meet in Belgrade in a great event. We had a solid season for sure. We were very consistent, and that’s the main thing that I keep from this journey so far. We did face a lot of adversities and obstacles due to the injuries, but we overcame them because we have a good chemistry of people who stood up, stepped up in clutch moments, and had a team reach another Final Four. I have nothing but the best to say for my players, for the team. They realized the moment and the opportunity we have. Each, individually, they carried out their responsibilities, and each of them has brought something positive to the team. Congratulations to them on that achievement.”

What are the things that surprised you the most about your team during the season, and in essence, allowed you to be as dominant as you were?

“I would not say it surprised me because I live with the team, I am a part of the team as their coach. But I can say that I am proud of my players that they realized the situation and stepped up on the occasion and in the difficult moments. Because, it is not easy in a playoff series playing against a talented team such as Khimki with the EuroLeague’s top scorer, to be missing Nando De Colo and Kyle Hines, who are very significant players for our game, offensively and defensively. Everybody stood up, they had their own meeting, they realized the challenge. This whole season we took every obstacle as a new challenge. We never stayed back, cried, complained. We tried to have a clear mind and go and fight each and every possession. That’s what makes me proud of my team, it shows we have depth, a deep bench, and we have the meaning of a team. Everybody stepped up and did something special for this team. Everybody.”

The team got a new pair of point guards last summer with Sergio Rodriguez and Leo Westermann, and even though Westermann missed a big part of the season with injury, it appeared as CSKA and its traditionally deadly offense has not missed a beat. What was it that eased the adjustment at the key position on the team?

“Last summer we [lost]two key players for our game, Milos Teodosic and Aaron Jackson, so we replaced them with two very good, very talented and well-known point guards who can be at the same time different in terms how they operate on the court. I am proud that adjustment was quick, although both of them were with the national teams and missed a significant part of our preseason. They actually had to make certain adjustments during the season and in official games, which is not easy. I congratulate both of them. Leo had a very strange injury and surgery and lost almost three months, which is a lot. We are happy Sergio and Leo found their fit in the team. They understood what it is all about. I talked to each one of them individually before they signed; they knew where they are coming and what they need to bring to the team. So they brought their talent within the system. And it proved the system of all these years works. And it is not only on the offensive end, it is also the defensive end. With all the respect to all the talk from reporters about offensive teams and defensive teams, we don’t work like that. We want to play defense, and play good defense. And we did play in clutch moments very good defense. But at the same time we don’t want to sacrifice our offensive skills. We are not an offensive team or a defensive team. We want to win games and we want to know, we want to read why we won or why we lost the game. We want to be smart enough to understand the way for a team to win. This season we won games by scoring 75 points, like the one on the road at Panathinaikos. And we won games scoring 90 or more points. It shows my team can make certain adjustments and win a game.”

How much extra confidence did the team gain for winning the playoff series against Khimki without two if its most significant players, De Colo and Hines?

“That gave us a lot of extra confidence. It proved once again how important is to have a deep roster of individuals ready to sacrifice for the good purpose, for the purpose of the team. This made us a better team, and brought players, coaches and management, all closer to each other. We knew we had a challenge out there. Nando played only 9 minutes in Game 1 and we had to play the rest without him. [At that point] a team needs to, in a short amount of minutes, realize that we have to play without Kyle who got injured in the last regular season game, and now without Nando. And having back-to-back games in the playoffs, you don’t have that much of a time to establish a different game. Obviously, I am proud the rest of the players realized the importance of the moment. Chacho [Rodriguez] took over, Cory [Higgins] took over, and everybody did its piece. Maybe Rodriguez was making baskets, but the full court pressure Leo Westermann picked up in Game 4 was also significant. He attacked their offense in certain moments and created plays. It was very important we had Semen Antonov consistently throughout the series, and that Andrey Vorontsevich stepped up in certain games. Nikita [Kurbanov] was guarding, and Will Clyburn is one of those players who had a great season and is growing and growing as a player and as a person. Don’t forget he did not have that much of experience playing on a winning team, or on a champion team before. So, that all makes me proud. Players have their focus on what is like to be a part of a winning team, and to sacrifice for a common purpose.”

In the semis in Belgrade, CSKA faces another club with a storied history in Real Madrid. In a matchup without a clear favorite or an underdog, what will be the biggest challenge against them, and what are things that decide contests between two such rivals?

“I agree we face a huge organization. Real Madrid has nine European continental titles, a team that has everything. Lately they have been all together with Sergio Llull coming back and playing a significant role in the last two games against Panathinaikos. In the playoffs, Madrid beat Panathinaikos on the road and broke their home court advantage. It brings me, and Jordi [Bertomeu] also knows I have a huge respect for the Final Four, but imagine if we would have a best-of-seven series between CSKA and Madrid in the semifinals. And Fenerbahce and Zalgiris. We would have a full gym in Moscow, in Istanbul, in Kaunas and in Madrid. Possible 14 games, a spectacle of basketball. It is something that, when you give me an opportunity, I express. But at the same time, I express my gratitude and how important it is to be in the Final Four. I have a huge respect for that. But in the future, I think we are going to face such games and I think it is great if we would also have playoffs in the semifinal. We play the semifinal like a final. It is one game. It is win or go home, basically, even though you stay in Belgrade. A lot of details will decide. Definitely the hustle, who wants it more. The 50-50 balls, which you have to make your own balls. And go possession by possession.”

With all teams guaranteed to meet twice during the regular season, even such powerhouses like CSKA and Madrid, does that neutralize some of the advantages, and make the preparation for the Final Four in any way different these days compared to previous seasons?

“Yes, it makes a preparation different because you already played them. Despite the fact that in the second game against them Gustavo Ayon was not playing, and Llull was not playing in either game. And in the first game in Round 2, my team was not yet ready to face such a team because we had our point guards just join the team from national teams. But it actually helps the teams a little bit that in the new format you play your opponents during the season, so it is not the first time in the Final Four you face a team. It helps the fact that you already played the team and are a little bit familiar with them, and that there are a lot of things that you can assume, or predict and make certain adjustments. However, this one is an elimination game, so it is quite different.”

For you personally, this will be the 12th time you are in the Final Four, whether as a head coach or an assistant. How exciting are these times of the year for you?

“It is very exciting, it is huge. I cannot describe in words what it means to be in a Final Four. It is a great opportunity to be among the best, try to compete with the best and try to go out there every time smarter and wiser. I want to thank the organization, assistant coaches and players for their contribution that they make it happen. I am proud I have been with champion teams for many years, and it is something you cannot buy. You can’t go in the market and buy experience. You live it, you experience it and that’s huge to work with such great players.”

What is your take on the other semifinal, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Zalgiris Kaunas?

“I strongly believe each team in the Final Four has 25% chances. Zalgiris is another team that broke the home-court advantage. Olympiacos, for them, unfortunately, faced a lot of injury problems to the key players, and it is not easy to get injured players back and compete at the same level they were competing before. They are one of the most consistent teams of the last decade, and had a great season, but having Printezis or Papanikolaou and whoever else injured makes Olympiacos not the same team they were during the season. However, Zalgiris eliminated them, and was dominant. They go to Belgrade with players full of energy and confidence. They will surely compete at the highest level. Zalgiris and Fenerbahce know each other, also, they beat each other on the road during the regular season. Fenerbahce has experience on its side, and they will want to defend their title. We are going to see a tough game, for sure.”

All three of the coaches trying to take the trophy away from Zeljko – you, Saras and Pablo Laso, all have had working connections to Zeljko. What does that say about his influence on the coaching profession in Europe over the years that all three of you worked or played under him?

“His influence is huge. When we are talking about his Final Four success, if it would have a name and a surname, it would be Zeljko’s name. It is huge. That fact that three of us have won the title together in 2009 in Berlin, Zeljko as a head coach, me as an assistant and Saras as a point guard, is important. But it is also important that through the years the relationships have been untouchable. We have a friendly and a family relationship with both of them, and I am happy they are going to be there, I am happy for their achievement, and I am surely going to see them off the court and we are going to share a lot of important moments in such a basketball city like Belgrade. People there understand basketball and love basketball, and maybe basketball is sport No.1 in the hearts of the fans in Serbia.”

With details making the difference, what will it take for you and CSKA to repeat 2016 and lift the trophy in Belgrade?

“It is not a secret that it is important who is going to have more possessions. That depends on how well are you going to take care of the ball and not make unforced errors. You are going to box out, and go even more often on the offensive boards to support jumpers. And be dominant on the rebounds. Definitely, the percentage you are going to shoot the ball is important, but percentage due to a good offensive game you want to establish, get open looks and shoot uncontested shots, which is not going to be that easy. There are also the 50-50 balls, to see who is going to show more character and desire and wish to prevail. A lot of times, in life but also in sport, the mind quits first, then comes the body. And we don’t want to quit, for sure.”