No excuses for Canada Basketball’s best with Victoria hosting qualifier

Canada's Dillon Brooks and Jamal Murray celebrate during a game for Team Canada. (Mark Blinch/CP)

By all extents, Friday was a good day for the Canadian men’s basketball team.

It was announced that the program had won its bid to host one of the four Olympic Qualifying Tournaments in the somewhat surprising venue of Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, B.C. from June 23-28. A beautiful location for what will, perhaps, be the most important event Canada’s senior men’s basketball program has hosted since the 1994 FIBA World Championship in Toronto, which saw Canada finish seventh.

There’s a big difference between this forthcoming event and the one from 25 years ago, though. This OQT is for all of the proverbial marbles in that Canada must win it in order to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

That’s obviously a lot of pressure. But as the host nation, Canada has a number of advantages.

“Firstly, that we’ll be able to get the support of our home-country fans and get the home-court advantage as we compete for our Olympic bid,” Canada Basketball president and CEO Glen Grunwald said over the phone. “Secondly, we don’t have to play on the court of another good country like Lithuania or Croatia or Serbia, which would make it more difficult to win those games.

“And thirdly, it’ll make it easier for players to suit up in the red and white this summer just because we are in Canada and, quite frankly, I think it’ll be more appealing to be able to play in front of the hometown fans.”

In regard to what Grunwald said of Canada not having to see Lithuania, Croatia or Serbia, this is because those nations were also selected as OQT hosts by FIBA on Friday.

Knowing Canada won’t have to face those European heavyweights is quite significant. According to FIBA’s world rankings, Serbia is No. 6 in the world, Lithuania No. 8 and Croatia No. 14. Canada, meanwhile, is ranked No. 21.

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With that said, it’s not like the OQT will be a walk in the park.

Remember, Canada has to win it’s OQT to reach the Olympics and doing that means they’ll have to overcome five other teams that will be just as hungry.

Who Canada will see in Victoria will be determined at the official draw ceremony on Nov. 27 that, according to FIBA, “will divide qualified teams from the five FIBA regions into geographically balanced groups” from a selection of 24 teams that qualified for this last-chance Olympic qualifier.

The list of teams are as follows (FIBA rank in brackets):

FIBA Americas
• Brazil (11)
• Puerto Rico (17)
• Dominican Republic (19)
• Venezuela (20)
• Canada (21)
• Mexico (25)
• Uruguay (43)

FIBA Europe
• Serbia (6)
• Greece (7)
• Lithuania (8)
• Russia (9)
• Czech Republic (10)
• Italy (12)
• Poland (13)
• Croatia (14)
• Turkey (15)
• Slovenia (16)
• Germany (18)

FIBA Asia and Oceania
• New Zealand (24)
• China (27)
• South Korea (30)

FIBA Africa
• Angola (32)
• Tunisia (33)
• Senegal (35)

None of these teams are what you’d call a guaranteed win, which is why, if Canada’s going to get the job done and reach the Olympics, the point Grunwald made about a greater appeal for more guys to suit up for the team can’t just be a nice sentiment — it’s absolutely vital.

To put it frankly, there’s no more excuses to be had for Canada’s top guns to not show up for this OQT.

Unlike the incredibly disappointing, last-minute, nearly daily dropouts that occurred during the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, this is a tournament that isn’t a 12-plus hour flight away, is happening in June on home soil in one of the most gorgeous parts of the country.

“It’s less travel and less stress and strain on our players who don’t have to travel to Europe or elsewhere to play a game,” said Grunwald. “Staying relatively close to the same time zone is also important in terms of their ability to compete at their full potential, and I think it’s just more appealing for people to come and play here and feel good about it.”

Simply put, outside of being injured, in getting the right to host one of the OQTs, it feels like Canada Basketball is somewhat calling the nation’s top players’ bluff.

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But if a situation does come about such as the one we saw with the World Cup, it’ll hurt that much more, not only because it likely means the drought of Canada’s men’s basketball team at the Olympics will continue for at least four more years — it ultimately hurts the program as whole.

Canada Basketball has always been in a chicken-and-the-egg situation in that the team needs sponsorship and funding to help itself out, but in order to do that, on-court success needs to be there — a difficult ask without the necessary resources.

This is another reason why Canada getting to host an OQT is so incredible. The arena that will host the games only holds about 7,000 people (the minimal requirement from FIBA, according to Grunwald) and yet FIBA is still giving Canada Basketball a chance to have its cake and eat it, too.

Victoria isn’t exactly a mega-market, and 7,000 seats — which could expand to 8,000 with floor seats and standing-room-only tickets, Grunwald says — aren’t that many, but the opportunity is there for Canada Basketball to raise the profile of the program, both financially and on the court, in one fell swoop.

In many ways, this is the moment Canada Basketball’s been building towards.

“FIBA would love to see Canada host more,” said Michele O’Keefe, former president and CEO of Canada Basketball and current associate director of athletics at Niagara College, who is also a member of FIBA’s central board. “The challenge we had when I was at Canada Basketball was putting together the financial business model that made the most sense.

“Hosting significant events was always part of my strategy, because the way I always considered it, and the board at the time always considered it, is if you want to compete at the highest level then you’ve got to have meaningful competitions on home soil.”

The most meaningful competition — outside of a World Cup or an Olympic Games, of course — is now coming to Victoria in late June.

Canada Basketball did its part. The baton will now be passed to the players to show up and do theirs.

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