It’s a weekend of new beginnings for Canada Basketball.
Not only does Sunday represent the first game in the new partnership between Canada Basketball and Sportsnet, it’s also the beginning of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 qualifying cycle for the senior men’s national team.
It’s a long road to that event, with multiple stages of qualifying – and a separate tournament smack in the middle of qualifying – and the uncertainty around in-season qualifying windows means there’s significant pressure to win when you have a good roster turnout. Canada definitely has that for a pair of games with Bahamas, and with records and point differentials carrying over to subsequent rounds, it’s a great opportunity to hit the ground running and lay the groundwork for a 2023 World Cup that’s hopefully more successful than the last four.
Canada will play a pair of games against the Bahamas to open the qualification window.
The format originally would have called for these teams to play each other once in each of their homes, but the pandemic has shuffled that approach. In fact, not only will they not host each other, both games will be played at a neutral site in the Dominican Republic.
Those games take place Sunday Nov. 28 at 4 p.m. ET and Monday Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. ET.
As announced last week, Sportsnet is now the exclusive home for FIBA events in Canada, beginning with these qualifiers and extending through the fall of 2025.
That means all of these qualifiers, the eventual World Cup, any youth level tournaments, the women’s pursuit of a World Cup berth in early 2022. All of it can be found on Sportsnet for the next four years.
This week’s games will have Dan Shulman and former national team forward Jevohn Shepherd on the call, with women’s senior national team player Natalie Achonwa joining Danielle Michaud and Michael Grange for studio analysis.
(No word on if Grange will spray-tan or wear bronzer to try to match the 29-degree temperatures in Santo Domingo.)
The FIBA Basketball 2023 World Cup qualifying procedure is a little convoluted to follow. There will be 80 teams competing in their respective regions in order to earn one of 30 berths to the 2023 World Cup. Japan and Philippines already have places in the 32-team tournament as co-hosts (along with Indonesia, who still need to qualify).
The Americas region (where Canada competes) will eventually send seven teams to the World Cup.
For the first stage of qualifying, Canada is in Group C along with Bahamas, Dominican Republic and U.S. Virgin Islands. They will play a total of six games over windows in November (vs. Bahamas in Dominican Republic), February (vs. Dominican Republic and Virgin Islands at a location to be determined) and July (also vs. Dominican Republic and Virgin Islands at a location to be determined).
To move on, Canada needs to finish top three in their group.
From there, they’ll merge with the three best teams from Group A (Argentina, Venezuela, Panama and Paraguay) to form Group E for the second stage. They will then play the Group A teams twice each over windows in August, November and February, 2023. Records from the first stage will carry over.
The three best teams from each second-stage group, as well as the best fourth-place team, will then qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
Canada placed 21st in the 2019 World Cup in China after failing to qualify in 2014. Their best finish ever is sixth in the World Championship (1978 and 1982), but they’ve topped out at 13th (2002) since the turn of the millennium.
The World Cup is a massive tournament on its own and carries additional importance as a qualifier for the 2024 Olympics. Seven teams will punch their ticket for the 2024 games in Paris via the World Cup. Canadian fans know all too well what comes next for the remaining teams: Last-chance Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.
And as an extra layer of confusion, there is also the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup, taking place in Brazil in September.
Canada has already qualified for that event, and while placing well is still valuable to the program, it’s not a direct feeder into the 2023 World Cup. Canada placed a disappointing eighth in the 2017 AmeriCup after taking home bronze – and nearly qualifying for the Olympics – in 2015.
The current FIBA World Cup qualifying procedure requires a program like Canada to lean heavily on their depth of talent. While Canada producing NBA and EuroLeague-calibre talent at an increasing rate is an incredible sign of growth, players in those leagues have generally not been made available for in-season qualifying windows.
To qualify for the 2019 World Cup, Canada used 35 different players. That will likely be the case again over the next two years, with most qualifying windows taking place in-season. Players from non-EuroLeague international clubs will make up the bulk of the rosters.
The 15 players Canada took to Houston for training camp ahead of their tip to Dominican Republic are as follows:
This is the 15-man camp roster for those Nov 28 & 29 games BTW. A lot of fun names, recent draft-radar guys, old friends, and some scoring punch with Robertson. Good mix as far as Nov windows are concerned.
Bjorkgren/Mitchell from Raps coaching.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) November 15, 2021
There should be a few familiar names here. Phil and Thomas Scrubb, Kyle Wiltjer, Kassius Robertson, Anthony Bennett and Owen Klassen are long-time participants for the program and bring a level of experience and familiarity that’s necessary in such a short event. Junior Cadougan also injects a decade-plus of experience to the group.
Kenny Chery, Phil Scrubb’s teammate with Avtodor, will make his national team debut, something that’s felt like a brewing inevitability the last few years. Kyle Alexander brings an interior presence for a team that’s often been thin inside, Aaron Best is a beloved two-way Swiss-army knife, Kadre Gray can score in a hurry if necessary and AJ Lawson brings some program experience and defensive versatility, as well. J.V. Mukama, Kalif Young and Jermaine Haley offer some newer faces at the back end of the rotation.
It’s hard to project what a rotation will look like when considering the fast acclimation necessary here, but the Scrubbs, Chery, Robertson, Best, Wilter, Bennett, Alexander, Klassen seem likely to form the core. (I’d personally have Chery, the Scrubbs, Wiltjer and Alexander start, but again, that comes down to acclimation time.)
Some notable absences here other than the NBA, NCAA and G League groups are Kaza Kajami-Keane and Trae Bell-Haynes (injured/illness), Tyler Ennis (recently returned), Dylan Ennis, Naz Mitrou-Long, Olivier Hanlan and EuroLeaguers Marial Shayok and Dyshawn Pierre.
Toronto Raptors assistant coaches Nate Bjorkgren and Nathaniel Mitchell will coach the men for this window, and have been away from the Raptors this week to help the team prepare in Houston, Texas.
A long-time Nick Nurse collaborator and recent head coach of the Indiana Pacers, Bjorkgren has been with the Canada Basketball program since Nurse joined the fold in 2019. Mitchell, meanwhile, has been with the program in an official capacity since 2016 around stints with the Maine Red Claws, Raptors 905, the Charlotte Hornets and now the Raptors. He’s also a favourite off-season workout instructor for a number of Toronto-based players in the program.
In October, Nurse emphasized the importance of consistency for the program. Releasing a pair of his NBA assistants, who have also been assistants with him for the national team, allows for some of that consistency despite the in-season window. They will coach for the February window, as well.
Bjorkgren will officially be the head coach of these first two windows, with Mitchell moving into the head chair for the AmeriCup in Brazil this summer.
First up for Canada is getting off to a strong start against Bahamas. Canada did just that during 2019 World Cup qualification, beating Bahamas twice by an aggregate score of 206-136. (Canada ranks 18th in the latest FIBA rankings, compared to No. 59 for Bahamas.)
Next up on the FIBA docket for Canada Basketball and Sportsnet will be the senior women’s team playing in their 2022 FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament Feb. 10-13 in Japan, followed by the Feb. 24-27 qualifying window for the senior men.