Photo By: Gints Ivuskans/Shutterstock.com
Canadian basketball fans have long been imagining a team full of their top talented men’s players, which, when fully assembled, has the potential to compete on the world stage. For now, the program has to rely on a low profile, yet talented, team of non-NBA players to qualify for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Last week, Canada defeated The Bahamas in back-to-back games in the first window of qualifying. Playing on a neutral site in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Canada trounced the Bahamians 115-73 last Sunday, and followed it up with a 113-77 win the next day.
The team was led by a crew of former college stars, veterans of the national team program, and some players with NBA experience. The starting lineup for both games consisted of: Kyle Alexander, a 25-year old big who played one season for the Miami Heat, Kyle Wiltjer, the former Kentucky Wildcat star and veteran of the national team, and Kenny Chery, an undersized point guard currently playing in Russia.
Rounding out the starting five were two staples of the senior team, brothers Phil and Thomas Scrubb. The Scrubb brothers are Canadian university legends, having won five straight CIS (now U Sports) championships as members of the Carleton Ravens. Despite all the roster turnover throughout the years, one or both of the brothers always finds their way into Canada’s lineup, and their veteran leadership is especially valuable in this unstable qualifying format.
Other members of the team included Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, AJ Lawson, a former standout with the South Carolina Gamecocks, and Kadre Gray, the two-time U Sports men’s basketball player of the year. The team was coached by current Toronto Raptors assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren.
It was Wiltjer who led the way in both of Canada’s victories. The 6’10 rangey forward poured in 23 points on Sunday, and followed it up with a 25-point performance on Monday. Scoring machine Aaron Best added 21 from the bench on Sunday, while the explosive Kassius Robertson netted 15 the following day.
Canada’s two games against The Bahamas were not the only qualifying games taking place this week. Buckle up, because this is about to get complicated.
FIBA’s qualifying system, which debuted in the leadup to the 2019 World Cup in China, features six qualifying windows with teams competing between two and three times during each window. The November 2020 window was the first of the six, and the win-loss record as well as point differentials carry over to future qualifying windows.
Canada, in the FIBA Americas qualifying bracket, is currently on top of their group of four teams (group C) with a 2-0 record and a +78 point differential thanks to the two blowout wins. Dominican Republic is in a close second with a 2-0 record and a +66 point differential, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and The Bahamas round out the bottom-half of the four team group.
The next qualifying window for these teams will be from Feb. 21 to March 1, 2022, when Canada will face the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. After the third qualifying window in July 2022, the top three teams from each group (of which there are four) will cross over to make two new groups, along with the top two fourth-place teams.
These new groups will then play in three more qualifying windows, where the top three teams from both groups, as well as the best fourth-placed teams will qualify for the 2023 World Cup. The same format is applied to the FIBA Europe, FIBA Africa and FIBA Asia/Oceania brackets. Currently, the only teams that have qualified for the World Cup are Japan and Indonesia, who will co-host the tournament in August 2023.
Canada will aim to qualify for their second straight World Cup, after a mediocre 21st place finish in 2019.
The road seems long for Canada, and the idea of having a different group of players during each qualifying window is not ideal, especially when those windows fall in the midst of the NBA season when top talents such as Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and others won’t be available. Still, establishing a core group of players is crucial to Canada’s success as a national team.
“We have to create one core team for both our men’s and women’s (teams) that we can count on, and then we have to invest in the training, the first-class travel, and development of those teams so that they can be most prepared to win on the global stage,” said Canada Basketball President and CEO Michael Bartlett in a recent interview.
The women’s national team has had some impressive results in recent years and is currently ranked No. 4 in the most recent FIBA rankings. On the men’s side, they simply have not had the buy-in that the women have, despite their wealth of talent. The men’s team is currently ranked No. 18, and disappointingly did not qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Continuity will be key in building an international contender, and though these qualifying windows certainly breed the opposite of continuity, they are an important step on Canada’s road to finally becoming a threat on the FIBA stage.