Canada’s best-case scenario for Olympic qualification at 2019 FIBA World Cup


Canada's head coach Nick Nurse is pictured before FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 exhibition game action against Nigeria, in Toronto on Wednesday August 7, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

There’s been a lot of understandable doom and gloom around Canada heading into the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

The number of notable NBA players who could’ve played for Canada but aren’t — either due to injury or because of early withdrawal — is disappointing, without question.

However, the roster is what it is and the fact remains that Canada still has the goal of trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games ahead of it once the World Cup tips-off Saturday morning.

There are a few ways Canada can reach Tokyo 2020 through the World Cup. The first and cleanest means to reach the Olympics through this tournament is to be one of the two best finishers from the Americas region.

This means being among the top-two finishers in a pool that includes Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and, of course, the United States.

The other method to an Olympic berth is much harder and more convoluted as it means being one of the 16 next-best teams from the World Cup (seven clubs in China will earn an automatic Olympic berth), and then playing in one of four last-chance Olympic qualifiers just before the Games begin, where a country has to win said last-chance tournament in order to earn one of the final four spots into the Olympic tournament.

Here’s a handy graphic from FIBA to help you better understand.

It’s a confusing process, in general, for Canada’s men’s basketball program to reach it’s first Olympics since 2000.

For simplicity’s sake, however, let’s narrow in on the first, clean option of just being one of the top-two Americas finishers to qualify and look at a best-case (within reason) scenario of how Canada might be able to make this happen.

Here’s how Canada can reach the Olympics via the upcoming World Cup.

Group Stage

As you may or may not be aware of the Canada’s Group H is considered the FIBA World Cup’s Group of Death.

In a round-robin group alongside powerful world basketball nations Lithuania and Australia, and strong African outfit Senegal, Canada will be in tough, especially because only the top two teams in the group will advance while the bottom two will be forced to the Nos. 17-32 classification round.

If all goes according to plan, here’s a realistic look at how Canada will fair in this first round

Group H
Position Team Wins Losses Points
1 Canada 3 0 6
2 Lithuania 2 1 5
3 Australia 1 2 4
4 Senegal 0 3 3

By no means will this be easy, but this is, realistically, the only way Canada’s going to be one of the top two Americas-region finishers.

Most important for Canada will be to beat both Australia and Lithuania to hold tiebreakers over each club. Both squads are more talented than Canada, and it will be an uphill climb, but it’s not like the talent disparity can’t be overcome by a good scheme by head coach Nick Nurse and some hot shooting, of which Canada could very much be in line for.

The reason for the perfect record is because if Canada’s going to beat Australia and Lithuania it should also be able to handle Senegal without much worry, too.

Regardless, however, it’s paramount that Canada manages to beat the two main obstacles in its way because of the implications it would have carrying into the next round where things potentially get even harder.

Group Stage 2

So let’s say now that Canada makes it out of the Group of Death. That’s great, right? Well, yes and no because there’s a second group stage that will potentially have Canada up against the wall again to reach the knockout phase of the tournament.

Should Canada make it out of Group H along with the group’s second-best team, they will join the top two teams from Group G to make up the all new Group L. As such, it’s important to keep in mind who will be coming out of Group G, and at the moment it looks like it’ll almost assuredly be France and either the Dominican Republic or Germany.

It would be advantageous to Canada should the Dominican not make it to the second round as that would automatically mean an Americas rival for one of the top two spots gone, but even though Germany, on paper, is probably more talented, the Dominican is the more experienced side, so we’ll say for argument’s sake that they manage to make it through Group G along with medal-favourite France.

Like in the opening round, the top two teams from this new second group will advance. Additionally, records carry over from that first group stage.

So with that in mind, here’s a look at how we envision Canada making it to final stage of the tournament.

Group L
Position Team Wins Losses Points
1 France 5 0 10
2 Canada 4 1 9
3 Lithuania 3 2 8
4 Dominican Republic 2 3 7

It’s important to note that in the second-round teams only play two games and don’t face the same team that came with them from the previous group, only the new opponents from the other group.

It’s why performing well in the first group stage is so important for Canada. The first tiebreaker in the tournament goes to head-to-head record, so even if Canada were to fall to both France and the Dominican, it would still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Lithuania with a 3-2 record in both group phases and reach the knockout round.

The fact that teams get less games to work with is a scary proposition, but it also adds extra incentive to perform well in the first round. The margin for error at the World Cup is razor thin and for a team like Canada without as much talent as other teams it’ll be facing that margin is even slimmer.

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Knockout Round

Finally, if everything breaks Canada’s way, it’ll find itself in the knockout round where, in case luck wasn’t already a factor for the club, fortune will really have to smile on Canada Basketball.

This is because, if Canada’s going to be one of the top two finishers in the Americas region it’ll need quite a few breaks go its way in the other groups. Here’s an ideal scenario for Canada unfolding elsewhere in the tournament.

Group A: Out of Cote d’Ivoire, the host China, Venezuela and Poland, it’s likely that Venezuela and Poland will make it out.

Group B: There’s no question that Argentina and Russia are making it out of this group, in this order, with apologies to Nigeria and South Korea.

Group C: Iran and Tunisia are nice stories, but Spain and Puerto Rico will make it out of Group C.

Group D: Serbia and Italy are clearly favoured in this group over Angola and the Philippines.

Group E: It’ll be the United States and either Turkey or the Czech Republic, with slight edge to Turkey. As Japan already has an automatic berth to the Olympics as the host nation there’s not much incentive to perform super well in a tough group.

Group F: This is actually a pretty competitive, well-balanced group, but the edge should go to Greece and Brazil.

Group I: Just like the Group both teams fed out of, Argentina and Russia will make it out of Group I, which combined Groups A and B.

Group J: This is where the implications for Canada begin to loom large. The combined group C and D, it’ll be Serbia and Spain advancing to the knockout round with the important distinction of Spain finishing behind Serbia, to Canada’s benefit.

Group K: This would be the big one for Canada. In a stunner, Greece needs to beat the U.S. when they play to take the top seed in Group K, so Canada can avoid America in the knockout round.

Quarterfinals: If everything lines up the way we’ve forecasted the four quarter-final matchups should look as follows: Argentina-Spain, Greece-Canada, Serbia-Russia, France-United States.

The big thing to take away from this setup is the fact Canada is avoiding the States, the U.S. would have to face France, and the juicy Argentina-Spain match up.

Regardless of what happens Canada would still need to find a way past Greece, but that would, presumably be easier than trying to beat the U.S. And should Canada manage to do that, the Argentina-Spain contest is a coin flip. Meanwhile, France definitely has the horses to beat this U.S. squad, paving the way to Canada’s Olympic berth.

Is this scenario likely to happen? Probably not, but in a tournament like this anything can and will happen, so why not keep the faith just in case?

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