The Eurocup celebrates its 10th anniversary this season and few players have been more successful in it than Matt Nielsen of BC Khimki Moscow Region, his fourth team in the competition. Nielsen reached the Eurocup title game in 2007, losing against Real Madrid.
It took Nielsen three years to erase that memory, when he led Valencia to the Eurocup trophy with a no-doubt-about-it 44-67 triumph against Alba Berlin in 2010. Nielsen was chosen as the Eurocup Finals MVP and also made it to the 2009-10 All-Eurocup first team, improving upon his second-team selection from the previous season. After a year at Olympiacos, Nielsen returns to the Eurocup this season with Khimki, one of the strongest candidates to win the competition. He hopes to use his six years of Eurocup experience to lead Khimki to what would be its biggest success in European club basketball. "I would love to have the opportunity to do it again with Khimki," Nielsen told Eurocupbasketball.com. "We are a long way off right now but I have such great memories of that title that I will give my best to do it again."
Hello, Matt. Welcome back to the Eurocup! First things first: how special was for you to get back to the competition and how tough was to beat Cholet on the road in this week's opener?
"It was good be back, of course, and thankfully I have very good memories of the Eurocup, so being back in a great feeling. In regards to Cholet, they gave us a lot of trouble in the first half and found the way to play a little bit better after the break. Cholet played pertty well but we managed to get that first win."
It was a very close game until halftime but Khimik took off after the break. What did you talk about during halftime to improve so much?
"We played better defense. I don't think we have too much troubles when it comes to scoring. We have to understand that if we want to go far in this competition, we need to play good, strong defense. I think we did much better in the second half and managed to get some stops at the right time."
Khimki is your fourth Eurocup team after PAOK, Lietuvos Rytas and Valencia. How does it feel to play for such a long time in such a strong competition?
"It's good! It is tough to imagine, when you think about it, playing the same competition with four different teams. It has been a long path until I got to Khimki. I think we have a really strong team. I am excited about the chances we have in this competition. We have unbelievable talent offensively and I think that if we work hard on defense, we can do something really special in this year's Eurocup season."
Let's go back to 2010: the Eurocup Finals, your first continental trophy, being chosen as the MVP, the celebration in Valencia. Which are your favourite memories about that weekend?
"Winning! Lifting the trophy is one of the best feeling I ever had playing in Europe, if not the best. We had a great team and the whole year was a great experience. We played well in the Eurocup and the Spanish League, but getting to lift the Eurocup trophy with Valencia was great. It is the kind of memory that will stay with me forever!"
One of your Khimki teammates, Thomas Kelati, also played for Valencia that season. Do you ever talk about what happened in Vitoria during the 2010 Eurocup Finals?
"Oh yes, definitely. We have also talked about it with some of our former teammates. We talk about the team we had and bring back all the good memories. At the same time, you sometimes think about what made that team so good and try to emulate that a little bit, remember what you did to help the team. I think that the success of that team came from how well we played together. I think that if we just do anything like that here, we will have a big, big opportunity to win it."
Not only you and Thomas have won the Eurocup, but also your head coach, Rimas Kurtinaitis, with Lietuvos Rytas. How is playing for a former basketball legend who was very offensive-minded as a player?
"He is a very good coach, a players' coach. He uses his references and experiences as a player a lot, and it is really helpful to have a coach who has been there, who has played basketball at the highest level like he did. He understands the game really well."
How do you think you can use the experience you got in 2010, when you won the title, to help Khimki this season?
"Like I said, you have to find the way to contribute and help the team to get better. Scoring is clearly not a massive thing that is needed on this team, so I am focusing on bringing energy, experience and effort. My experience says that I have to work very hard. We have a lot of good players and I just need to find my role and enjoy the experience. Hopefully I will be able to contribute and help the team when it is most important."
This is the 10th Eurocup season and you have played for the only two-time winners in the competition — Valencia and L. Rytas. How has the competition improved since you first played it in 2004-05?
"Big time, I think. My first Eurocup season, with PAOK, was also my first in Europe so everything was a bit of a new experience. The level of competition and the quality of the individuals in it is top-level and the Eurocup has only got better and better since I first played it. There are a lot of talented foreign players and that also help the locals to get better, too. It is no surprise to see that every season, the best Eurocup teams are better than the lowest Euroleague teams. The competition system is great and helps the playing level to be stronger. If you look at the regular season draw, there are very good teams, at least a couple of them, in every group."
Where does that Eurocup title rank in your career as a pro basketball player?
"It's massive. I had some success throughout my career in Australia. Coming to Europe, I won some titles with Rytas in Lithuania, but winning a European competition is really the highlight of the last 10 years of my career. It is such a good feeling to win a competition like the Eurocup. I would love to have the opportunity to do it again with Khimki. We are a long way off right now but I have such great memories of that title that I will give my best to do it again."