After opening Last 16 Group K with a tough home loss, Spartak St. Petersburg has managed to bounce back, winning its next two games to be in a good position to advance to the Quarterfinals. Spartak beat Cajasol 78-59 at home and went on to defeat Stelmet Zielona Gora 69-89 on the road last week.
One of its main contributors in this two games is team captain Vasily Zavourev, who has seen extended playing time since the Last 16 started and is rising to the occasion. Zavourev averaged 10 points and 7 assists in both wins, in the same month that he has turned 27 years old. A two-time Nike International Junior Tournament MVP, Zavourev was a superstar at that level, but his transition to professional basketball was tough. Zavourev saw limited playing time at CSKA, then playing in Ukraine and Cyprus before returning to Russia. In his fourth season with Spartak, Zavourev has reunited with some of this former CSKA junior teammates such as recently signed Yaroslav Korolev, Nikita Kurbanov and Anatoly Kashirov. There is no time like now for Zavourev, as he tries to get some responsabilities in his current, extended role with Spartak. ""When you play more and you know that your coach likes you, you will feel much more comfortable," Zavourev told Eurocupbasketball.com. "When you feel the trust not only of your coach, but of all the players in the team, you will automically play much better. That is what is happening with me right now."
Hello, Vasily. Spartak won its regular season group and is 2-1 in the Last 16. How have been the last three weeks for your team?
"Of course, it wasn't easy because everybody was wondering how strong we would be after the New Year. Patrick Beverley left the team so we lost one of our main players. Everybody was wondering how we would play without him, how would we reorganize and everything. I want to say that, especially in the Eurocup, we managed to get ourselves together after the home loss against Kuban. We played a bad game — nothing went well offensively and we allowed them to score 84 points, which is, of course, unacceptable if we want to beat them. We managed to beat two very good teams, Zielona Gora and Cajasol. Both teams had some very good games in the Eurocup before facing us — Zielona beat Unics in Kazan by 15 points. We knew these two games would be difficult but were really motivated. We got ready for those games and see what happened — we beat them by 19 and 20 points."
Do you think that your home win against Cajasol was a turning point for Spartak in this Eurocup season?
"Absolutely. If we lost that game against Cajasol, it would have been our second consecutive home loss and our chances to go to the Quarterfinals would be much smaller than they are right now. We knew it was one of the most crucial games of the season. If we wanted to go further in the Eurocup, we have to win and do it with by a good point difference. You never know what will happen, if you will need or not. We played well all game long and came out with the same thoughts that he had in the next game against Zielona Gora. We knew that if we beat them twice and Kuban did the same for Cajasol, we would qualify. Those two wins have been important for us."
You have been playing much better in the Last 16. Is this your best moment in your four years with Spartak?
"Well, for sure. I didn't have that much responsability on myself until now, for many reasons. Sometimes I didn't have enough trust from our coach and this year is just perfect. First of all, I am the captain of this team and I get much more responsability. After Patrick left the team, he left a gap that all the players in the team are supposed to fill and take more responsability on their owns. This is what happened with me. I have the ball in my hands more often and have more possibilities to create for the team. You can see the results by the number of assists I had recently."
Like you said, you are seeing more playing time lately. Do you feel like you had the need to step up and help the team?
"First of all, when you play more and you know that your coach likes you, you will feel much more comfortable. When you feel the trust not only of your coach, but of all the players in the team, you will automically play much better. That is what is happening with me right now."
You were known as a scorer but dished 19 assists in 3 Last 16 games. Have you managed to develop your passing skills during your career?
"I always liked scoring but also giving assists to my teammates. There is no big difference for me to score or give assists. I feel also great when I give a good pass to, let's say, Vlado Dragicevic or Loukas Mavrokefalidis and any of them scores. It helps the team. My priority is to help the team to go as far as possible in the Eurocup. There is no big difference for me to score points or give assists because I feel comfortable both ways."
Yaroslav Korolev joined the team recently. You and Korolev led CSKA's junior team to a spectacular win in the Nike International Junior Tournament in 2005. How special is it to play with him again?
"It's funny! We had not seen each other for a very long time. He played in the United States and moved to Spain for three years before coming here. Of course, I like to see him here because we have been friends for a very, very long time. We needed more help in our rotation, especially in the '4' and '5' positions, and he is here to help with that. I hope he helps us to reach our goals, and the biggest one is winning the Eurocup."
Nikita Kurbanov and Anatoly Kashirov were also your teammates in that unstoppable CSKA junior team. Which are your biggest memories of those years?
"My best memories are playing the International Junior Tournament. I played it for three years at the Euroleague Final Four — in Barcelona 2003, Tel Aviv 2004 and Moscow 2005. Those were great tournaments, great experiences which I will never forget. I was chosen as the tournament MVP in 2004 and 2005, which make these memories much more glorious. We all remember this and my teammates — Kurbanov, Korolev and Kashirov, who is here with us but he is injured — talk about the good moments that we shared."
Spartak is in a good situation to advance and has a new arena. How do you like playing for the club?
"Of course, playing for Spartak is a great opportunity for me. It has a great tradition and history, a lot of great players and coaches were in the team before us. I feel like a big part of a big team and that gives you more responsabilities. We are trying to play well to bring more people to the new arena. If we attract more fans, Spartak will be even more interesting for the city. Winning the Eurocup, of course, will be a huge step forwards. If we win the Eurocup, the Euroleague will come to St. Petersburg and that would be a huge step forwards for basketball in this city."
Coach Jure Zdovc was a legendary guard. What have you learned from him?
"Our coach has great experience. First of all, we was a high-level player himself, for a very long time. He uses his experience to share it with us, the players, 100%. He played point guard at the highest level and knows everything about the game. He gives us a lot of good advice, especially to us, the guards — how to share the ball, make passes, set the right rhythm on offense. His experience is very important for our team because he knows how to bring the best out of us. I think that we are being successful right now because of him."
Last but not least, Spartak went to the Eurocup semifinals last season. What can we expect from you in 2012-13?
"Reaching the semifinals was a good result for us last season but if you remember what happened in that semifinal game against Khimki, when we were leading by 15 points in the third quarter and lost... we see it as a disappointment. We don't want to repeat such thing this season. I don't think it is impossible to at least repeat the result we had last season. If we advance, we will play against Buducnost, Budivelnik, Banvit or Triumph. None of them is a big club that we cannot beat and everybody understands that. We will give as much as possible to go at least to the semifinals and if we managed to reach that high stage, it is not about the name of the club — there is a lot of psychology, will and determination involved. It is more about your desire to win the game. We will do as much as possible, playing as a team."