A deeper, older Canada hopes to win FIBA Olympic qualifier in Victoria

Will Canada finally play in the Olympics for the first time in a generation? 

Led by Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, Canada has a team loaded with NBA talent including Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Luguentz Dort, Dwight Powell and Cory Joseph. Canada, which has mainly disappointed on the world stage for 20 years, are keen to erase the memory of the bitter 2015 qualifier loss to Venezuela in Mexico City. “it still stings,” Joseph said Monday in Victoria ahead of their Tuesday opener versus Greece. “We haven’t done anything yet. We’ve had a talented group before. We have to put it all together.”

Nurse recalls lacking size and experience in 2019 losses to Australia, Lithuania and Germany at the FIBA World Cup in China. “These teams are experienced. They still have all the same players 9 years later (as the 2012 Olympics). They were old back then. It’s similiar with these teams here. They’ve played together a long time. Their continuity, longevity and tradition play a factor.”  

Organizers in Canada hope to have at least 700 fans in Victoria, British Columbia for the final round games this weekend, which would give Canada the home-court advantage they lacked during subpar campaigns in Turkey, Mexico, China and elsewhere.

Turkey, who came within one point of upsetting USA in China 2019, are perhaps the most likely team to knock off the Canadians on their home turf. Ersan Ilyasova, 34, has played in 52 FIBA games for Turkey since 2006, including the loss to Kevin Durant and USA in the 2010 world championship final in Istanbul. Cedi Osman averaged 20 points per game for Turkey at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. Alperen Sengun, 18, is a potential NBA first round pick.

Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky will again lead a Czech team that put up good fights against Greece, Serbia and Australia after beating Japan and Turkey in China in 2019.

Greece will hope to conjure the magic of 2006 when they upset LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and USA in the world championship semi-final in Saitama, Japan. Kostas Sloukas, who has played 42 FIBA games for his nation, was 16 back in 2006. “I woke up to see the game. The feelings this kind of game created were amazing. I immediately went out with my friends to celebrate in the street because it might not happen again,” he told a press conference Monday in Victoria. “But this question is too far ahead for us. It’s better to stay over here and fight for our ticket to the Olympic Games.”

Greece coach Rick Pitino joked in Victoria on Monday that he couldn’t persuade NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo to lose to the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs in order to play in the Olympic qualifiers. Pitino said his team “have battled adversity pretty hard”, and they will also miss Vassilis Spanoulis, whose shooting helped Greece upset USA in Saitama, Japan in the 2006 world championship semi-final.  Greece will need inspiring play from Kostas Antetokounmpo, who won the NBA Finals last year with the LA Lakers, and also from Georgios Papagiannis, 23, who has played for Greece since age 18 and for Pitino at Panathinaikos.

China, which hosted the FIBA World Cup in 2019, will struggle to keep their streak of qualifying for every Olympics since 1984, a feat behind only USA and Australia. Ranked 29th in the world, they have a young team who will need to replace center Yi Jianlian, out with an achilles heel injury. 

Ranked 45th, Uruguay has veterans led by center Esteban Batista, 37. They will hope to do what a physical Venezuela team did to Canada in 2015.

(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)