Toronto, Canada – After suffering through a horrendous month in July, the Canadian Senior Men's National team opened up the second phase of its FIBA America's Olympic qualifier preparation in a rare showcase held on home soil.
In two exhibition games against the Belgium Senior National team held over Aug. 13-14 at Ryerson University in Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton, the SMNT reassured concerned fans that the early struggles were just a part of the process, winning both contests 79-75 and 74-68, respectively.
Though the wins will make it easier for fans to swallow the 1-5 start to the summer - defeating a country not even ranked in the top 75 by FIBA on home court should be nothing to brag about - it certainly shouldn't be taken as an indication this team is peaking just yet.
"Nothing matters until August 31 and every single day we're just trying to get there," said Leo Rautins, national team head coach following the team's game at Ryerson. "Our goal as a team is to just get better every single day, clean up the mistakes and find ways to [improve]."
Where the Canucks showed they could be most formidable is on the defensive end, since the interior presence of the Miami Heat's Joel Anthony was a constant disruption, while the perimeter defense matched the intensity on the inside.
It's an area the coaching staff feels is a key towards the team's transition heading forward.
"If we're going to win games at all we have to be good at the defensive end," said Rautins. "We can't relax - we're not a team that can relax - we have to play with a high level of intensity all the time and I think we have some players at every position that can be good defensively, they can be quick, and they can do a lot of different things."
To open its Olympic qualifier preparations, Canada fell four straight times to competition inferior to what is expected to be lining up as the opposition in Argentina at the FIBA Americas tournament. But with a few late additions - namely Cory Joseph. concerns about the backcourt being undermanned behind starting point guard Jermaine Anderson should be quelled for the time being.
With a limited time to assimilate to the team, helping the young guard adjust with a group of veteran teammates exemplifies the team's dedication towards excellence.
"We got back from Europe and Jevohn Shepherd, Denham Brown, Jermaine Andersen and Jeff Ferguson got in the gym with Cory and when we got into practice last night he knew three quarters of our plays already which is a huge thing...It just tells you the nature of this group they just care about winning," said Rautins.
In his first action suiting up for the senior squad, the young former Texas Longhorn recently selected in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs showed flashes of what he can bring to the squad - pushing the tempo, running the offense with veteran savvy, all while playing his renowned tenacious D - but alluded to the fact there's always room for improvement.
"It can get better. I'm a guy's [sic] that's hard on myself and I feel like we can be more fluid, be better in [defensive] rotations and better offensive execution," said Joseph.
With only a few weeks before the qualifying tournament begins on Aug. 31, the remaining time will be spent on fine tuning the team with its entire roster finally intact. With three exhibition games scheduled a week prior to the tournament against some notable South American competition in Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Canada will get a last chance to experiment with different lineups and iron out any wrinkles just before the qualifier.
The biggest obstacle for Rautins and his coaching staff is getting a group of players, who spend most of the year playing professionally abroad or collegiately across the continent, to work together as a cohesive unit in a short amount of time. It was evident in the early part of summer a lot needed to be done and even in victory there are areas which certainly need to be addressed.
"I think defensively we can get a lot better, offensively we rush things a lot. We got to learn how to play together that's what this is all about. I think if you talked to any one of our guys, we're not going to be satisfied with our game until we play at a certain level at both ends and we have some time to get that done," said Rautins.
Even if the Canadians fail to qualify for the Olympics at the FIBA Americas tournament, they will be given one last chance to secure a spot in the prestigious event in a tournament held just before the Games begin in London - it's an avenue most would avoid as the Canucks look to participate in the Summer Games for the first time since 2000.
With a bevy of young Canadian talent scattered across the U.S. in prep schools and top ranked NCAA programs, the next Olympics could be an opportunity for Canada to showcase the next generation of Canada Basketball - it will just have to make it there first.