Canada the “hunted and not the hunter” at FIBA Americas basketball tournament

TORONTO — Canada captured more than a gold medal at last summer’s FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo.

The team’s historic basketball victory, including a thrilling upset of the mighty Americans in the semifinals, cemented a measure of confidence in the country’s best young men’s players.

But the perennial underdog Canadians tip off the FIBA U18 Americas championship with a target on their collective backs this time around, said Michael Meeks.

“I think we’re definitely the hunted and not the hunter now, because we’ve actually acquired a gold,” said Meeks, Canada Basketball’s manager of men’s youth player development and assistant coach on Canada’s U18 squad. ”I know the U.S. is going to be out to rectify that.”

The Canadians look to fend off the revengeful Americans when the FIBA Americas tournament tips off Sunday at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont. The top four teams earn a trip to next summer’s World Cup.

The United States is 53-2 in the tournament, and has won gold in eight of the last 10. Canada finished runner-up to the Americans in both 2014 and 2016, and finished third in the previous three FIBA Americas tournaments.

Canada, which just wrapped up a training camp in Ottawa, is led by 6-4 guard Andrew Nembhard, who played alongside Canadian star R.J. Barrett at Montverde Academy. Led by Barrett, the Florida powerhouse went 35-0 in U.S. high school action this past season, and captured the U.S. national high school title.

Nembhard, an 18-year-old from Aurora, Ont., told FIBA.com that he’s looking forward to the rare opportunity to play an important tournament at home.

“Playing at home may add some extra pressure to other guys, but personally I just see it as a great opportunity to play in front of our fans and show them how much Canada Basketball has improved over the last few years,” said Nembhard, who’ll play for the Florida Gators next season.

Meeks agreed, saying the opportunity was “huge.”

“You can get some exhibition games at home, but you don’t really get a meaningful tournament where stakes are on the line,” he said. ”The atmosphere at the Pan Am Games a couple of years ago was probably the most recent … and when you can play in front of your home crowd, it’s a huge advantage, it’s like having that sixth man that can just put you over the edge, when it comes to needing that little bit of energy.”

Canada won’t have Barrett for the tournament. The 17-year-old, who’ll play for the Duke Blue Devils next season and is a projected No. 1 pick for the 2019 NBA draft, is in Los Angeles working with skills coach Drew Hanlen.

“R.J. played three summers, two years as a cadet and then last year as a U19,” Meeks said. “At some point they need to take a summer where they can just focus on training and getting after some things and preparation for college, so he’s taking that time now.”

Canada’s confidence against the U.S. is bolstered by the fact the Canadians play either with or against many of their American rivals in prep school or AAU action all year.

“Going to Montverde and playing against elite high school competition these last couple of years definitely boosted my confidence and prepared me to play for the U18 team this summer and take on a bigger stage. It’s something I look forward to now,” Nembhard told FIBA.com.

Carleton Ravens coach Dave Smart leads Canada’s staff that includes assistants Meeks, Jamie McNeilly of Virginia Tech, and Chris Cheng of Nipissing University.

Meeks said it was a long scouting process to finally picking Canada’s 12-man roster, starting back in November with open tryouts. Meeks figures between this summer’s U17 and U18 squads, they looked at close to 400 players.

Canada opens against Argentina on Sunday, then faces Ecuador on Monday, and Chile on Tuesday. Group A has Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the United States.

The quarterfinals are Thursday, and the medal games Saturday.

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