Canada’s road to Rio Olympics won’t be easy

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss Canada’s group & chances at July’s FIBA Olympic qualifier in Manila, Philippines.

The path to the first Olympic men’s basketball tournament appearance for Canada in 16 years is now plainly laid out.

But it’s not an easy road.

After the draw for the 2016 Olympic Qualifying tournaments this summer was completed in Switzerland Tuesday Canada’s path to Rio will run through Manila, the largest city in the Philippines.

More importantly it will likely run through No. 5 France and No. 8 Turkey, two of the strongest basketball countries in the world that have not already earned a spot in the 12-nation Olympic basketball tournament in Rio.

The challenge facing Canada and any of the other 17 teams vying for one of the three remaining spots in the Olympic hoops tournament is quite simple: win one of the three six-team qualifying events this summer and you’re in.

But the tournaments are short and have absolutely no margin for error. Canada may have gotten lucky in that they avoided playing in either Turin or Belgrade and thus avoided having beat either Italy or Serbia on home soil, but they still have a tall task.

In Group A Canada, ranked No. 26 in the world, will have to play against No. 31 ranked Senegal and most significantly Turkey, ranked No. 8.

The top two teams from Group A will advance to the semifinals against the top-two teams from Group B, which holds France, No. 21 New Zealand and the host Philippines, ranked No. 28.

It didn’t have to be this way. Canada romped through the Tournament of the Americas in Mexico City last September, running up a dominant 6-1 record in preliminary play with a plus-19 point differential before facing off against a veteran Venezuelan club in the semifinals.

The top two teams at the Tournament of the Americas advanced to Brazil automatically; all Canada had to do was beat Venezuela, who they had blown out in preliminary play.

Canada was leading by seven points with 3:19 to play when disaster struck. A young Canadian group failed to score again and suffered a stunning upset when Venezuela converted the winning free throw on a controversial call with 0.3 seconds left on the clock. Although Canada rallied to win over host Mexico in the bronze medal game the damage was done as only the gold and silver medallist earned a ticket to Rio.

Jay Triano and the Canadian players react in the dying moments of Canada's loss to Venezuela. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Jay Triano and the Canadian players react in the dying moments of Canada's loss to Venezuela. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

It was quite possibly the most crushing defeat in the history of the men’s program as it appeared the young wave of talent that represents Canada’s so-called "golden generation" were going to get their Olympic program going.

Instead their third-place finish earned them only a spot in one of the three six-nation qualifying events.

While the loss remains fresh the team could conceivably benefit from having to take the hard road, providing they can persevere and win their qualifier. The qualifying tournament provides another chance for a young team to play meaningful, must-win games, experiences that are hard to come by and invaluable to have for a team that only gets together for a few weeks in the summer, and not every summer.

“If we win it it’s more games together and there’s nothing we need more right now than to play together on a stage [like that],” said Boston Celtics and national team stalwart forward Kelly Olynyk. “Last year, with that Venezuela game, that was the first time we’ve been in a game that meant something where things didn’t go our way. Now that it’s happened we can learn from it and grow and excel and just get better, whether it’s from a playing standpoint, a coaching standpoint, staff, management, whatever it is we can all learn and grow and get better together."

The question facing Canada and nearly every other country relying heavily on NBA talent is who they can rely on having play.

The July 4-10 dates fall squarely within the NBA’s free agency moratorium period as players can’t sign new contracts until July 9. Among those likely to be affected are Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks, Andrew Nicholson of the Orlando Magic and Anthony Bennett of the Toronto Raptors.

On the other hand Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers should be available this year after sitting out last summer, as would Milwaukee Bucks guard Tyler Ennis and emerging rookie power forward Trey Lyles of the Utah Jazz.

Olynyk, for one, sounds like he can’t wait to get it rolling.

“The chemistry is great, from top to bottom, players to the staff, there’s not a bad apple in the group, you always love coming back and playing for your country with Canada across your chest is really something to be proud of and keeping track of the guys over the year is pretty special too.

"We have a pretty close-knit group now.”

They’re going to need to stick together if they are going to make it to Rio.