If any player knows what it takes to survive the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds, it has to be playmaker Billy Keys of Budivelnik, which joins the hunt for a place in Europe's top competition on Tuesday. If Keys and his teammates are successful, they will make Budivelnik the first Ukrainian team in a long time to reach Europe's marquee club competition. In fact, when it had the chance to qualify through preliminary rounds back in 1995, Budivelnik never made it to the Euroleague regular season. Now they have Keys to lead the way. Not only did Keys help Greek club Maroussi through qualifying to the Euroleague regular last year, but the team proved good enough to play the Top 16 and come within a victory of making the Quarterfinal Playoffs. Always hungry and ambitious, Keys is now hoping to rewrite Budivelnik's history, but it all starts with a tough two-game series against Russian giant BC Khimki Moscow Region. Keys is excited about the challenge, as he told Euroleague.net. "If we go out there, and play as a team, as a family, I think this team can have the kind of success Maroussi had last year," Keys said in an interview. "I am excited, really looking forward to it. I can't wait for this season to start."
Hello, Billy. First of all, you are about to face Khimki in the second Qualifying Round. What do you have to do to beat them?
"Khimki is a well-built team. They have a lot of talent and experience, of course, guys that played Euroleague for many years. We have to match their intensity level and energy. One of the key things for us is to enjoy the game. We know we are facing a high-level team, but we have to enjoy on the court. If we do that, we have a good chance."
Khimki comes off two wins against Caserta, while Budivelnik didn't play the first round and has had more time to prepare. Can this be a factor in the series?
"I hope so! They played two games already and that could help them to establish the rhythm. We played only in pre-season and a Ukrainian League game. Hopefully, we played enough to have our chemistry established. It can go both ways but we will go out there and play 100%. We will leave everything on the court."
You led Maroussi to the Euroleague regular season last year. What do you remember about last year's Qualifying Rounds?
"Every possession, every setting counts. We both know it is points differential. You have to go out there and play for 40 minutes and give 100% in both games. If we don't do that, we won't qualify. Like I said, if we go out there, leave everything on the court and do our best, I am sure we will have good results, like we did in Maroussi last season."
What's the secret, then, to competing so well so early in the season? Did you learn anything in last season's qualifyings that you and your team can use this time?
"Yes, I think that preparation can make the difference so early in the season. I think that a lot of our guys came into pre-camp in great shape, knowing that we would play the Euroleague Qualifying Rounds. We came in good shape in the off-season and worked extremely hard in pre-season. Coach prepared us for this moment. We are ready to go out there and have a good game."
You have been a basketball globetrotter, as you played in seven different countries. What do you like most about this continent and European basketball?
"I love the level of competition. It is really well-organized basketball and it gets stronger and stronger every year. The game has become international, the US dominated in the past but now, you saw what happened in the World Championships, USA won the title for the first time in a long, long time. The level of competition is really even and it is great to compete against all these guys that know how to play the game. The European basketball culture is great, you must die for every game, fight and that is what I like. The European style is very competitive and strong. I have been blessed to play this game for several years over here."
Tell us about your new team, Budivelnik, which few people know about outside Ukraine.
"Well, there is a lot of basketball tradition here in Ukraine. Budivelnik became really strong in the last couple of years. They put together a great team to compete not only in Ukraine, but in Europe. They managed to bring Coach Josep Berrocal, who played for FC Barcelona for many years and has a lot of Euroleague experience. They are trying to put together a team able to compete outside Ukraine, too. This is our goal — go out there and try to outplay them."
What sort of buzz is being heard there about this opportunity for the team to become the first from Ukraine to make the Euroleague regular season?
"Of course, we are very excited over there, because it is a chance to do something historical. As a player, you want to be one of the guys to help this team to do something that has not been done before. It is an opportunity not only for Budivelnik, but also for myself. It is something we are excited about, a goal we are trying to achieve. The opportunity starts tomorrow and it is a chance to make it come true."
And you personally, having played in the Euroleague and done so well last year. How important is it for you to get back in the competition?
"It is really important. I really enjoyed myself last season, as we survived the Qualifying Rounds, made it to the Top 16 and were one win away from reaching the playoffs. This year, I am really looking forward to trying to repeat that success and even do better. As a player, you always want to do better than you did the previous year. If we go out there, and play as a team, as a family, I think this team can have the kind of success Maroussi had last year. I am excited, really looking forward to it. I can't wait for this season to start."