The Can Ball Report takes stock of the Senior Men's National Team's performance in the FIBA Americas. What helped, who starred and what this berth at the 2010 World Championships means for the National Program...
It has been one great summer hasn't it? If you live in Toronto, maybe the weather hasn't exactly been to your liking but it's been a spectacular summer if you're a Canadian basketball fan. Between the Toronto Raptors' various personnel changes and the goings on with the National Team program (as well as the success that has accompanied many of these on goings), there has been lots to enjoy as a Canadian ball follower. In fact regarding the National Team, this may go down as one of the best and most important summers in Basketball Canada's history. Why? Well simply put, with their fourth place finish at the recent FIBA Qualifying Tournament, the Senior Men's team qualified for an international championship event; the World Basketball Championships to be exact, which was a culmination of a few years of groundwork. So let's take a closer look.
After an exhibition season that featured potential future Senior Team players in various tune up events, Canada enjoyed a great run in the FIBA Qualifying Tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico last month. Despite an overall tournament record of 4-6, Canada was able to make it into the quarter final round and win two straight games to get to the medal round where they would eventually place fourth and earn a spot in at Turkey for the 2010 World Basketball Championships. This was easily the Senior Men's Team's best showing in several years and an amazing accomplishment especially when you look back at last summer's debacle in trying to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
Now let's state the obvious, that Canada's qualification for the World Championships is a huge deal. This is probably the first major international event that the Senior Men have qualified for since the 2002 World Basketball Championships. The Road Warriors, as they've been dubbed, have done a complete 180 if you compare them to last summer's team. And Canadian basketball fans should see this as a stepping stone to a bigger place on the world basketball table.
The biggest factor in this turnaround?
It seems like this year, there was a case of addition by subtraction when it comes to the team. There was a lot of talk of infighting and dissention within the ranks last summer, which did seem to translate on the floor. This summer however there were some noticeable omissions from the roster, most notably Philadelphia 76er center Samuel Dalembert, whom many had pegged as the clubhouse cancer. It's hard to say to what extent this was true but it's safe to say that his presence was certainly a major distraction for a team fighting for international legitimacy. With Dalembert gone, many of last summer's unsavory elements were removed and the atmosphere this time around was much better according to players and coaches. This had a major effect on the team as the off-court chemistry helped translate into hard-nose play and a more cohesive team overall. According to head coach Leo Rautins, everyone who was here with the team wanted to be here and that is all that really needed to be said. The team finally took to the mantra of Be One and it's hard to argue with the results.
Now with the roster change in the books, let's take a look at some of the individuals on the team and who really stood out in this tournament.
First of all, this really was a "team" in the true sense of the word as Canada got major contributions from nearly every player on the squad. But there were some whose play during the tournament was definitely noteworthy starting with breakout showings from both Carl English and Andy Rautins who shot the lights out in many a match.
English was on fire from the floor making 49% of his field goals while shooting an equally sizzling 47.4% from the arc leading the team in points per game (12.5 ppg) and total points (100) despite not playing in two of the 10 contests.
Rautins was also on fire from outside leading the team in 3's made with 23 while hitting for 45% from long-range. Both were ranked in the top 10 in 3 PT % in the tournament. Also to be included in this mention is captain Jesse Young. Young was clearly the heart and soul of this squad and often times would be the one giving up his body for the team. You may not notice his contribution in the stats but believe that his presence was always felt both on the floor and in the locker room when it was needed most.
Well now that we have the right parts in place, what can we say about their overall performance?
If you ask anyone that follows basketball they may tell you the same thing - they didn't expect Canada to qualify for Turkey at this tournament. And taking into account the historical results of past teams, they may have been right to think so. But this edition of the Road Warriors showed that they were ready to step out of the shadows of former incarnations of this club.
In this tournament, not only was Team Canada handily beating teams they should be beating, they were also hanging in with more competitive teams. You only need to look at the boxscores of any of the Canada vs. Brazil games to see that the Road Warriors hung tough until the very end, an impressive feat considering Brazil's roster and 15th spot in the FIBA world-wide rankings. Canada even hung in with the top-ranked FIBA team in the world, Argentina, for a little in the Bronze medal game. Yes, they got down by as many as 35 at one point but hardly gave up, storming back to close the lead to a respective total.
So what does this tell us?
This tells us the team has grown and progressed. This current team has proven that they have the character to win games, period, something made obvious by looking at two things; killer instinct and heart.
You could see that killer instinct on display throughout the recent tournament. When Canada knew they faced one of the weaker teams in the field they jumped on the club early and often. The lone exception to this was probably the close-fought loss to Uruguay; one that could be argued helped motivate the team for some of the tournament's later matches.
And in terms of grit and heart, when the club was faced with an obstacle such as a tougher team, a large deficit or a late-game charge by an opponent, Canada was able to hold it together and pull out wins when past versions of this club would probably have let things slip away. Wins against Panama and the Dominican Republic stand out here and the close-fought matches with Brazil do as well.
What should also be pointed out after this tournament is that the team's coaches have made great strides in not just switching the style of play to suit the international game, but also in making a great effort of get players to buy into this new system. The results of these seemingly small changes ended up bringing big results in terms of helping pave the way for Canada to head to Turkey in 2010.
So what is our final analysis of the 2009 Road Warriors?
In my books, there can only be one answer, that the Senior Men's Team has exceeded any initial expectations before the summer. The team's play over the last tournament can only serve as an indicator of the direction of the National Team program, something even more impressive considering the absence of many familiar Canadian NBA names. The ticket to Turkey falls in line with the cumulative success of the junior teams have had earlier on this summer and it also gives reason for those playing behind this team to want to continue with the National Program.
But most of all it gives those faithful fans, the ones that have been with the Senior Men's Team when they were at their low point only a few years ago, a sign that the best is yet to come and the sun is in the horizon for Canada Basketball.
* For more info on the many National Team Programs go to www.basketball.ca