Two years after claiming gold, Canada’s U19 team has sights on World Cup medal

When Canada captured its first global basketball title at the FIBA under-19 Men’s World Cup two years ago, it changed the tone for perhaps every Canadian squad playing on the sport’s biggest stage.

“It’s nice to know we’re capable of it now, whereas before nobody thought we would be,” Dan Vanhooren said.

Vanhooren is coaching Canada at the U19 World Cup which tipped off last week in Heraklion, Greece.

RJ Barrett led Canada to an historic gold in Cairo, Egypt two years ago, but rather than putting a target on the Canadians’ back, Vanhooren said the 2017 squad instilled a sense of confidence in the country’s young players following in its footsteps.

“It was always ‘the U.S. is this and that,’ and maybe Russia, or somebody … there’s always somebody who’s the big talk,” the coach said. “For us with this group, I don’t think that anybody has any unreal expectations, but we do think that we could medal here if we play at our best. But we need some extraordinary play from a couple of guys for that to happen for sure.”

Canada takes a 1-1 record into Tuesday’s game versus Latvia. AJ Lawson had 23 points and eight rebounds to lead the Canadians 81-76 over Australia in their opener. Keon Ambrose-Hylton had 16 points in Canada’s 71-70 loss to Mali.

The Canadians practised Monday then the team spent the evening in downtown Heraklion, the picturesque port city and capital of Crete, to celebrate Canada Day. Dressed in their white-and-red Canada gear, they cheered “Happy Canada Day!” in videos on social media.

Canada is the No. 2-ranked team in the tournament behind the U.S., but as is often the case with summer tournaments, the team is missing some key players including Andrew Nembhard, who originally declared for this year’s NBA draft before withdrawing to return to the Florida Gators for another season.

“Andrew will be in the draft next year, so obviously he needs to have a good year at Florida,” Vanhooren said. “(The players who are absent) all have their own personal reasons for making that decision not to play. Andrew is 100 per cent Canadian and has played for all our teams in the past. He’s an amazing player and would certainly be helpful to have, but he’s made a decision that’s best for him, and so then it’s a good decision.”

Emanuel Miller, who will head to Texas A&M next season, and Addison Patterson are two other notable absences.

And Barrett, who earned MVP honours at the 2017 World Cup, would have been eligible to suit up for this squad in Greece. But the 19-year-old has bigger commitments on his calendar. The No. 3 pick in the recent NBA draft will make his debut for the New York Knicks when NBA Summer League tips off in Las Vegas on Friday.

“So, just think of the team we could have put on the floor,” Vanhooren said. “I don’t want to take away from the kids who are here, they’re here representing our country as best they can, and they’re doing what they can. But to have players of RJ’s level playing for us (would have been) another thing.”

Barrett could suit up for Canada’s senior team at the FIBA World Cup — the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — that tips off Aug. 31 in China.

The Canadians game against Latvia caps the group phase, and determines who they’ll play in Wednesday’s Round of 16 game. Canada can finish anywhere between a tie for first and third in their group.

Vanhooren predicts a tough test against the Latvians.

“It’s a contest of two different styles, Latvia plays very pretty basketball, their style of play is really nice to watch,” Vanhooren said. “They play the game correctly, they move the ball, they create shots for each other, everything is just good to great — they have a good shot and they move the ball to another player and get a great one.

“And they run a lot of actions. They’re a fun team to watch, but we’re definitely going to have to blow up their actions with our athleticism and play a little more aggressively than we have, and get after them a bit. Should be a fun game.”

The Canadians will face either Lithuania, the United States, New Zealand or Senegal in the Round of 16 — “It’s a crap shoot right now.”

The quarter-finals are Friday, the semis Saturday, and the medal games are Sunday.

“I think (a medal) is the goal of every team that comes here, save a few teams maybe,” Vanhooren said. “If we can just get into that round of eight that we need to play in, that would obviously be a good start … if we can start in the quarter-final and see where we can get to.”

Canada upset the perennial champion Americans 99-87 in the semifinals two years ago, earning gold with a 79-60 win over Italy in the final.

Vanhooren, who’s coached the University of Calgary since 2000 and led the Dinos to a U Sports title in 2018, is making his first appearance as a head coach in Canada’s national program.

“It’s a unique experience,” he said. “I think (the U19 World Cup) is great for basketball, and I think it’s also great for our Canadian coaches to see the way the game is played in different parts of the world, and to bring some of that learning back to our country. This is a great experience for everybody in some respects for sure.”

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