The Euro Step: Clutch Cory Higgins & Scouting Goga Bitadze

Give Cory Higgins his respect.

Higgins is overshadowed at CSKA Moscow because he plays with two former EuroLeague MVPs (Nando de Colo and Sergio Rodriguez), a high-flying dunk machine (Will Clyburn) and a two-time EuroLeague Best Defender (Kyle Hines). But without a doubt, Higgins has been CSKA’s best player this season.

The former University of Colorado Buffalo deserves EuroLeague MVP consideration, and he showed exactly why on Tuesday as he led CSKA to an 80-78 win on the road at fourth-place Efes.

Higgins scored 19 points, including CSKA’s final six. With less than three minutes left and CSKA fending off an Efes rally in front of 14,000 fans, Higgins was a calming presence, posting up the smaller Shane Larkin and splashing a turnaround fadeaway before the help defense arrived.

After an ensuing two-minute dry spell, with the game tied at 76 and two seconds on the shot clock, it was Higgins who darted into open space and hit another fadeaway to give CSKA a lead in the final minute.

And with the game tied again at 78 and only five seconds remaining, Higgins blew past James Anderson for the game-winning layup.

It was a statement performance, but nothing new. Higgins has been excellent all season, scoring in double figures in 21 of 23 games while also playing lockdown defense.

His stats are certainly MVP-worthy. He’s averaging 15.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. His shooting percentages are simply ridiculous: 50.6 percent on twos, 52.9 percent on threes and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line.

With this clutch performance on the road over a fellow top four team, maybe Higgins will start to get the MVP buzz he deserves.

Scouting Goga Bitadze Live at Fenerbahce

I was in Istanbul on Tuesday night to scout upcoming first-round pick Goga Bitadze. I wrote about Bitadze for FloHoops in January, when he burst onto the EuroLeague scene with dominant performances in his first four games.

The 19-year-old center has continued to impress against Europe’s top competition, and is steadily moving up draft boards league-wide. After starting the season as a fringe first-round prospect, the 6-foot-11 Bitadze should be a top 20 pick.

He wasn’t particularly great against Fenerbahce’s tough front line, and he showed some of his weaknesses. He got roasted a couple times when switched onto guards, and he committed some silly fouls, including three in his first five minutes on court.

Luckily his coach left him in the game, and Bitadze rewarded him immediately, scoring five quick points. Bitadze seems like he can always generate some easy buckets because of his size and hustle. He runs the floor well, he has good hands, he goes up strong and finishes through contact.

My favorite part of Bitadze’s game is he’s relentless on the offensive glass. He had five offensive rebounds against Fenerbahce, which tied his season-high. He has good timing and understands where rebounds will come off the rim. From there, he has the length to go get them, which often leads to putbacks or drawn fouls.

Bitadze finished the game with 11 points and seven rebounds in just under 18 minutes. It wasn’t the type of performance that blows you away, but it was another solid game from the teenager.

First-Place Fenerbahce Looking Sluggish

I went to the last two Fenerbahce home games, and both times they struggled for 30-35 minutes before making a late fourth-quarter comeback.

On Friday, it was Barcelona that jumped on them early. The Spanish squad was in control for most of the game until Kostas Sloukas rescued Fener. Sloukas dropped 22 points and 11 assists, and hit the go-ahead bucket to finally give Fener the lead with less than two minutes left.

On Tuesday, it was 15th-place Buducnost who tested first-place Fener. Buducnost led most of the game until a late Fener rally, sparked by Luigi Datome’s monster chase-down block.

The optimist would say Fenerbahce won both games despite playing poorly overall. A win is a win, regardless of how you get there, and Fener are two steps closer to locking up first place.

But as we’ve seen in recent years, playoff seeding isn’t as important as peaking at the right time. When Fenerbahce won the title in 2017, they entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed. Same goes for last year’s champions Real Madrid.

Fenerbahce are clearly not playing their best basketball. The biggest concern is MVP candidate Jan Vesely, who hasn’t been nearly the same since returning from a knee injury that forced him to miss a month of action.

Vesely isn’t as explosive as he was before the injury, and he doesn’t look confident in his knee. Usually, when he catches the ball near the paint, Vesely Airlines is cleared for immediate takeoff. But lately he’s been hesitant and settling for jumpers rather than attacking the rim.

If Fenerbahce are going to win the 2019 title, they need their star to return to his usual form.

Top 3 Games This Week

This is a daunting EuroLeague double week, with games happening Tuesday through Friday. With only a few weeks left until playoff time, there are many crucial games that will determine who’s in and who’s out.

If you only have time for three games, make sure you check out these ones.

Panathinaikos (13-13) vs. Baskonia (14-12)

Wednesday, March 20, 3 p.m. ET

Why you should watch: This game will have massive implications on the playoff picture, as ninth-place Panathinaikos try to jump No. 8 Baskonia. PAO consistently have the craziest crowds in Europe, and they will be out in full force for this one. Both teams are also red-hot right now, with PAO winning four straight and Baskonia winning five of their last six.

Real Madrid (20-6) vs. Milan (14-12)

Wednesday, March 20, 4 p.m. ET

Why you should watch: Two of Europe’s most explosive offenses go head-to-head in a potential playoff preview. Real Madrid are looking to match second-place CSKA’s record, while Milan are still trying to secure a spot in the postseason. You definitely don’t want to miss Milan’s Mike James going up against Madrid’s Sergio Llull and Facundo Campazzo.

Fenerbahce (23-4) vs. CSKA (21-6)

Thursday, March 21, 1 p.m. ET

Why you should watch: Two perennial final four teams battle at the top of the standings. If CSKA win, they still have a shot at first place, while Fener can essentially clinch the No. 1 seed with a win. I’ll be curious to see if Fener look better after their recent struggles.

Austin Green is an international journalist and scout covering EuroLeague and NBA prospects in Europe and Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @LosCrossovers.

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