The last time Canada’s men’s basketball team won a group stage game at an Olympics or a World Cup was on Sept. 25th, 2000 when Steve Nash went off for 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a 83-75 win over Yugoslavia – the defending world champions at the time – to secure the top spot in its group at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
It may have been the peak moment for Canada on the international stage. For a moment they were on top of the world. Canada’s last win at a World Cup came Sept. 3, 2002 in Indianapolis when it prevailed over Venezuela 98-97 – without Nash – during the classification round en route to a 13th-place finish. Rowan Barrett – currently the team’s general manager – and Michael Meeks, Canada Basketball’s manager of youth development, combined for 20 points each. Andrew Nembhard, the youngest player on Canada’s World Cup roster in China, was two.
That’s the backdrop for Canada’s much-needed 82-60 win over Senegal to finish group play at the World Cup in China early Thursday morning. There will be plenty more opportunities to discuss how a nation bursting with basketball talent has struggled so mightily internationally, but when you are ranked 23rd in the world and without a win at a major global competition in 17 years, you have to start somewhere.
With group play wrapped up, here are five takeaways for Canada from the tournament:
Four Olympic spots still up for grabs
The win improves Canada’s record at the World Cup to 1-2 and allowed them to finish in third place in Group H. It now moves on to Shanghai where it will join Jordan and Germany (along with Senegal, who finished fourth in Group H) in Group P to play in the classification round to determine spots 17-32 in the competition. And while playing to finish in the mid-teens was not in the plan when Canada began building toward the 2019 World Cup – the goal was a medal or at the very least earn one of two spots for the Americas at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 – the games in this round do matter.
The teams that finish 17-23 in the classification round will advance to the next phase of qualifying for the Olympics. What does that involve? Four mini-tournaments of six teams each held next summer. The winner of each of those earns one of the final four spots available for the 12-team Olympic tournament.
Big game vs. Germany
Canada will play Jordan and Germany on Saturday and Monday, respectively. Jordan finished fourth in Group G and Germany – which may have had a more disappointing World Cup than Canada at this stage – who failed to advance to the second round despite having four NBA players on its roster. Presuming a win over Jordan (ranked 49th heading into China) Canada’s chance to guarantee itself a spot in the play-in tournaments next summer will likely come down to its game against Germany, ranked 22nd, which features Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder and Dallas Mavericks forward Max Kleber. It won’t be easy, but Canada is used to that by now.
Stars show up vs. Senegal
As for the win over Senegal, Canada shook off a rough start – they trailed 22-11 after the first quarter – to slowly assert control and then dominate. Khem Birch continued his run of excellent play as he sparked a second-quarter run with some hard work on the offensive glass that led to second-chance baskets and trips to the foul line that got Canada going. Birch found Brady Heslip for a three that tied the game at 28 with 4:13 to play, and Kevin Pangos drilled another three a moment later to put Canada up and it never looked back. The Canadians led 33-32 at the half and then pulled away, powered by a 26-14 third quarter. After a sluggish outing against Lithuania, Cory Joseph was outstanding, leading all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting while Pangos chipped in with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists along with two steals. Birch had six offensive rebounds, three blocks and three steals as Canada pulled down 21 offensive rebounds in total, a massive factor in the game. Canada’s three highest-profile players came to play and the results were evident.
Finishing on a high note
Winning is fun. There were a number of camera shots of Canada’s bench and it was interesting to see how lively it was. How many conversations were being had among players. Winning at this level takes talent, but it also takes connection and chemistry. As much as securing a spot in one of the play-in tournaments is a vital outcome for the remainder of its stay in China, finishing on a high note with stronger bonds and feelings for the experience of playing for Canada would be a great side-benefit. And winning – in any shape or form – is a vital ingredient in that elusive mixture.
Canada got screwed
It’s hard to properly evaluate Canada’s performance through the group stage. Certainly it’s disappointing that it didn’t advance to the second round and frustrating that so much of the discussion has been – unavoidably – has been about why just two of Canada’s 17 NBA players made the trip to China. But what gets lost a little bit is how badly the odds were stacked against Canada regardless.
There isn’t much point in bemoaning your draw and seedings, but it’s pretty striking when you look at the competition the other teams from the Americas faced at the World Cup, and how bad a hand Canada was dealt.
Argentina, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Dominican Republic have all advanced to the second round and Canada has not, even though Canada finished 10-2 in the Americas during the qualification process and finished tops in its group. It was 4-2 in its games against teams from the Americas that have advanced at the World Cup. But consider who Canada’s rivals from the Americas have had to play in China: Argentina was able to advance with wins over Nigeria and Korea, ranked 33rd and 32nd, respectively; Puerto Rico got through with wins over Tunisia (51st) and Iran (27th); Brazil with wins over New Zealand (38th) and Montenegro (28th); and Venezuela with wins over China (30th) and Ivory Coast (64th). Canada somehow got stuck having to win at least one game over Australia (11th) or Lithuania (6th). There is not much of an argument that Canada got screwed
Among the many ills FIBA needs to address as they try to grow the World Cup is this one: if they are going to require countries to go through a long, expensive and convoluted qualification process, why does that process count for so little? Canada won its group in qualifying and had a strong record against other teams in the Americas at the World Cup, but it had no impact on its seeding or its ranking. That ain’t right.