VICTORIA, B.C. – Team Canada captain Cory Joseph and head coach Nick Nurse spoke to the media on Monday afternoon from Victoria B.C., where the team has been since Thursday in preparation of the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, the team’s last chance to qualify for Tokyo, 2021 later this summer.
The nation has brought out its deepest and most star-studded roster ever and, with eight current NBA players, they enter the tournament as the favourites to win it all and advance. Czech captain Tomas Satoransky speculated that Canada might be the second-best team in the world, while Greece head coach Rick Pitino praised their talent. In other words, they have a target on their back. But they don’t necessarily feel like it.
“In my mind, we haven’t done anything yet,” Joseph said in the opening press conference on Monday. “Yes, we have a talented group of players, but we’ve got to put it all together… We’ve had talented groups before. So I mean, that is a hell of a compliment from those guys, but at the end of the day everybody’s professional, we all lace up our shoes the same way and they got great teams as well. So we’ve got to go and put it all together.”
Perhaps there is a hesitancy to show too much confidence because of the ghosts of tournaments’ past: Repeated failures in Olympic qualifying tournaments, a format they haven’t used to get through to the Olympics since 1964, losing in the final against France in 2016, the most recent one, with each of their four games having seen single-digit margins (W3 L1). Plus, heartbreaking losses in 2013 at the FIBA Americas, in 2015 in Mexico City, and in 2019 and the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.
The fact is that they haven’t been to the Olympic Games for 21 years, and Joseph, who’s been with youth or senior the program for most of that time — trying to help claw their way into the Olympic Games and coming up short again and again — knows that it takes more than talent to win.
“We definitely have a lot of talent.” Joseph said. “[But] I have been here for a while. I’ve had talented groups before and we couldn’t get the job done. So we got to be extremely focussed and put it all together and get out there and just play extremely hard. I think if we play together and we play hard, I think our talents can show.”
They’ll have their first opportunity to show out against Greece who, despite being ranked No. 6 in the world, are missing several key players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, which Pitino was quick to point out. Greece and Canada haven’t faced each other in an Olympic Qualifying Tournament since 1972, when the Greek’s won 91-87.
“This game comes down to a lot of times: who’s going to play the best defence, and who’s going to make shots?” is how Pitino put his philosophy in this tournament, which makes sense given that the Greeks like to shoot a lot of threes. “When you get to games like this, it’s shot makers… In these short games like this, it’s shot-making. It’s like the NCAA tournament… you may be better, but if the shots don’t fall, you’re going down. And that’s what makes it exciting. It’s not a seven-game series.”
It’s true: the format, which you can read more about in my preview piece highlighting the five most interesting storylines for Team Canada at the tournament, lends itself to a lot of excitement and angst. Six teams go in, only one comes out, with single-elimination games in the semi-final and final. The first game between Canada and Greece will be especially important, because the winner will be almost guaranteed to finish first in the group considering China is the weakest squad.
Nurse also stressed defence, saying that: “Defence is certainly very important to our team. I think we’ve got the capability to be a very good defensive team… [And] if you’re gonna play all that defence, you’ve gotta get out and go if you get the stops.”
“We like to play aggressive offence as well. I like to understand that we can be flexible. Whatever tempo the game is played at, that we can find a rhythm at any tempo that it’s played at and be successful.”
Despite Canada’s clear talent advantage and their ability to play multiple different styles, it could be argued that the Greeks they have two advantages over Canada: International experience and size. In fact, several of Canada’s key players including Luguentz Dort, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Trey Lyles have never played a senior game for Canada, while others such as Mychal Mulder and R.J. Barrett have never played in a meaningful one.
In terms of size, the only traditional center on Canada’s roster is 6-foot-9 Dwight Powell — ultimately leaving 7-foot-4 college freshamn Zach Edey off the final 12-man roster — whereas Greece is a physical team with 7-foot-1 Georgios Papagiannis and two other players 6-foot-10 and above.
Plus, while this team is bigger than the one they brought to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, it was there that Canada got hurt on the boards against Lithuania, with Nurse saying how the size there “was probably a bit much for us to overcome in that tournament.
With an average roster height of 6-foot-6 according to FIBA, team Canada is the second-shortest team in the tournament, behind only Uruguay. They are undoubtedly the most skilled, with probably the best combination of defenders and shooters, but if there is one weakness outside of their lack of experience, it’s size. Especially in the FIBA game dominated by big men who can stay parked in the paint without a 3-in-the-key rule.
It might not matter: Team Canada looks as versatile a team as it gets — one with several players who could play small-ball five and slide up and down positions — and if Nurse is right, they will be flexible enough to adapt to anything the Greeks or any other team throws at them, maybe with aggressive double-teams in the post or maybe just by trusting their smaller but still strong bigs. On the other hand, if Team Canada can get stops and run and play their game, turning it into a shoot-out rather than a slow, physical, half-court battle, they should have no problem against the Greeks.
“We’re gonna find out a lot more tomorrow about who we are and who we can become,” Nurse said about his team, who didn’t play any exhibition games due to being in Tampa Bay and COVID-protocols. “But [I’m] very pleased with where we are sitting here today.”
The game kicks off at 7:05pm EST on CBC Sports and DAZN.