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Underdog Canadians will need to go to great lengths to succeed at FIBA World Cup | The Star

The task is monumental, verging on impossible, but there is one undeniable thing that a group of unheralded Canadian basketball players will have to do in the World Cup that begins Sunday if they are to realize their ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Play great. Like out-of-their-mind great. Like greater than they have ever played before great.

That great.

Canada has settled on a 12-man World Cup roster that is long on guards, limited in size and lacking any semblance of world-stage experience. It has but two NBAers — Cory Joseph arrived in China a couple of days before tournament is to begin after blowing off an Australia exhibition series and Khem Birch has been with the club since the beginning. Almost half the roster — Phil and Tommy Scrubb, Kaza Kajami-Keane, Owen Klassen and last-minute addition Conor Morgan — was trained in the Canadian university system and play around the world. There is a university sophomore teenager in Andrew Nembhard and the rest of the team — Kevin Pangos, Melvin Ejim and Brady Hesllip — come from European leagues and American college programs.

It is a disparate group all thrown together under Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who has precious little time to figure things out.

“It seems like we’re putting a hell of an effort out to get these guys to play the best that they can,” Nurse told reporters in China on Friday morning.

Joseph fulfilled his obligation to meet the team in China after sitting out the final five of seven exhibition games. He told reporters on Friday in China that he had always planned to rejoin the squad after a couple of weeks off.

The Canadians suffered a blow when Oshae Brissett was forced out of the World Cup to be replaced by Morgan, who wasn’t even at the team’s training camp. To make room for those two, Canada’s last cuts were wings Duane Notice and Aaron Best, released after the games in Australia.


It may not take perfection for Canada to qualify but it will take something close to it. The team’s shooting cannot be subpar, it needs to have spot-on transition defence, especially against Australia, and the lack of an individual star or two will mean consistent production up and down the roster.

The team’s strength is decidedly in its guards, where Joseph, Pangos and Nembhard have to do the bulk of the scoring. Wing play is suspect and Nurse will assuredly experiment with two or maybe even three traditional guards on the court at the same time.

The Scrubb brothers have to be consistent shooters, Ejim has to create near the basket and the thin frontcourt means guys like Klassen and Birch cannot afford serious foul trouble.

But through seven exhibition games, one consistent trait Canada has shown is that it will play hard. Maybe not perfectly but hard.

“I think that anybody that’s turned on and watched us would say ‘Man, those guys are all right,’ right?” Nurse said in Dounggan, China. “And maybe surprisingly so, because of the roster.


“So it’s we can ask for, and it’s all we can do.”

Canada’s lack of experience might be critical in their opening game against Australia, which finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But the Boomers are not without issues. Veteran centre Andrew Bogut turned an ankle in the team’s last exhibition game and while examinations showed no structural damage, he’s been limited in his final preparation.

To make the 2020 Tokyo Games, Canada has to finish in the top seven at the 32-country World Cup. That means getting out of a first-round group that includes medal candidates Australia and Lithuania and surviving as one of two teams to get out of a second-round group that will likely include France, one of the tournament’s true powerhouses.

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Should Canada fail to earn an automatic Olympic berth, teams that finish eighth through 16th at the World Cup get spots in last-chance Olympic qualification events next July. Finish outside the top 16 and an invitation to one of those four 2020 qualifiers will be at the whim of FIBA and based on global rankings.

Canada last qualified for the World Cup in 2010, going winless in five games in Izmir, Turkey and has failed to qualify for an Olympics or a world championship since.

Doug SmithRead More

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