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Biggest challenge awaits Canada in Mexico City at FIBA Americas

Biggest challenge awaits Canada in Mexico City at FIBA Americas

Posted by PanamericanWorld on August 28, 2015

The last time the Canadian senior men's basketball team was in Puerto Rico for FIBA's biennial Tuto Marchand Cup, back in 2013, they went home empty-handed, losing all four of their games.

With Wednesday's hard-fought victory over the host team, they assured themselves a first-place finish by closing out this year's instalment of the exhibition tournament undefeated at 4-0.

On Friday morning they will catch a flight to Mexico City, where the games count for real and will ultimately determine which two teams earn automatic qualification to next summer's Olympic Games. But first, they squeezed in one final practice at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan and were gifted their trophy - a big, heavy eye sore in the shape of two metallic hands cradling a basketball.

Meaning no disrespect to the tournament or its hosts, Canada's players refused to touch their prize. After all, it's not what they came here for.

"We anticipate [Mexico] to be different, of course," starting point guard Cory Joseph told TSN on Thursday. "Teams are going to obviously pick up their play, they're going to play all their guys. So we expect it to be different. We just use this as a [first] step to our final goal."

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said head coach Jay Triano. "In tournaments things can change so fast but we've got a good feel for where we are. We think we can be a lot better than we have been and we've got a good feel for what other teams are going to do.

"I think we're in a pretty good space right now but it doesn't matter how good we feel. It doesn't matter what we did in this tournament, it all starts next week."

As the leader of a very young team, Triano is tasked with keeping his players levelheaded after a hot start to the summer, which began with a silver medal finish at the Pan American Games last month. From the outside looking in, it appears he has done just that. Despite their brief taste of success, they still seem hungry, motivated and focused in on their goal; earning that trip to Rio, returning to the Olympics for the first time in 15 years, and then making some noise on the world stage.

They passed their first test pretty convincingly, which is already more than some expected from such a youthful group. Their eldest player is 29-year-old Aaron Doornekamp. Kelly Olynyk is their oldest starter at 24. They're deep and talented, sure, but their inexperience was a legitimate concern going up against some established programs with crafty veteran players this past week.

Argentina made a run at them in the opener. As did Dominican Republic a couple days later, and Puerto Rico in the physically charged and highly competitive tournament finale.

"It was a great test," said Andrew Wiggins, who led Canada in scoring, averaging 14.5 points during the tournament. "This last game was a turning point for us, to make us know we're ready. The chemistry is building every game."

Canada's defence, particularly on the perimeter, is ahead of where the coaching staff had hoped it would be at this point, which is a positive sign for a team that plans to hang its hat on that end of the floor. Canada held opponents to 72.5 points per game on just 40 per cent shooting. They dominated the boards, grabbing 50.8 rebounds per contest, over 12 more than any other team. They weren't perfect, mind you. Their offence is very much a work in progress but, with the talent they have, Triano is confident it will come around.

The quality they demonstrated that's most encouraging is their resiliency. Canada bent but they never broke. They stayed calm and closed each game out.

They showed more and more composure as the week progressed. On Sunday, the scrappy Argentines got under their skin. Anthony Bennett nearly lost his cool when Andres Nocioni tossed the ball at his back. Later, Melvin Ejim picked up a technical foul for shoving an instigating opponent. But in Wednesday's finale, despite a similar level of physicality and equally frustrating officiating, Canada was all business.

"I think the best thing is that we fight," said Triano. "Everybody kind of made a run at us and we were ready to withstand runs and stay together, not panic and still be able to close things out. I liked that part of it."

"The biggest takeaway for us probably was experience, getting to play with each other," Joseph echoed. "Getting to play FIBA action was great for us. There were a couple times where teams fought back into the game and we had to keep our composure. I felt like we did a good job with that. So biggest thing for us was just playing together and learning each other's games."

With the stakes much higher in Mexico, the level of competition will continue to rise. While Canada rested Olynyk over their final three exhibition games, after he sustained a minor knee injury on opening night, many of their opponents also held back. Ten-year NBA veteranFrancisco Garcia was inactive in their matchup with Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico sat out banged up former NBA forward Renaldo Balkman and welcomed Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea back from a two-game suspension.

Adversity will hit harder and the schedule does them no favours. Most teams will play 10 games in 13 days, with one of their days off breaking up the opening round. Canada's day of rest comes on the opening day of the tournament, before their first game, so they'll play 10 in 12

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