Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Canada’s former head coach Lisa Thomaidis spoke about the depth of women’s international basketball, saying that 10 teams are legitimate contenders for the podium.
The analysis turned out to be predictive. Canada, fourth, didn’t even make it past the group stage. And while the top-ranked Americans took gold, it was Japan, No. 8, who surprisingly took silver and France, No. 6, took bronze.
Now the world’s top women basketball players converge in Australia for the FIBA World Cup, held every four years and widely regarded as the sport’s largest non-Olympic tournament.
Although the format is slightly different, the challenge remains the same: Canada must win multiple games against top opponents.
And one thing is identical to Tokyo – Canada’s opening contest is against Serbia. In Japan, the Canadians fell victim to a tough night of shooting. They will try to turn the tables Down Under on Wednesday.
Victor Lapeña, who replaced Thomaidis as head coach in January, said he was beginning to feel the pain of his predecessor.
“You don’t have time to build a team,” Lapeña said. “So you have to play this and this and that. And we will try to mix. Now I am changing some ideas to try to mix more mechanics with freedom.”
Lapeña has managed Canada for just two official games, both in Japan in February when Canada lost to the hosts in overtime before hitting back against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The team that played in Japan played very well. But we played without [Phoenix Mercury guard] kia [Nurse]we played without [University of Arizona point guard] shaina [Pellington]So that’s the hardest thing for me,” Lapeña said.
“What style are we going to have on court with Kia, with Shaina? What kind of basketball are we going to play if Shay Colley is out and I have to use Nirra Fields as a point guard, for example?”
The longest Lapeña had to internalize his system, which he says emphasizes possession and movement and gives players more freedom than before, was in the run-up to the World Cup. The team spent some time at their training center in Edmonton before relocating to Australia for exhibition games ahead of the tournament.
It wouldn’t be too surprising if Canada won silver or lost all five group stage games.
Lapeña’s free-flowing style – borrowed from legendary Spanish soccer coach Pep Guardiola – can be highly variable. If it works, Canada will look like playing together for years. If not, it looks like a sales-filled mess.
Senior assistant Noelle Quinn, who is also the head coach of the Seattle Storm and joined Team Canada alongside Lapeña, should offer a new perspective as a former player on the bench.
“I had a fun chat with [veteran Natalie] Achonwa just after the Tokyo qualifier in February,” recalled Canada Basketball CEO Michael Bartlett. “I asked Nat, ‘How was Victor?’ She gave me great feedback. I said, ‘How was Noelle?’ And Nat’s like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot she was new. She just felt like she had been part of our program for a long time.'”
For a variety of reasons, Canadian teams spend less time together than other national federations throughout the year.
On the plus side, the more forgiving World Cup format should give Canada more time to gel.
There were only three group games at the Olympics, and the opener against Serbia proved to be Canada’s downfall. The group stage at the World Cup consists of five competitions per team.
“Difficult tournament because we are in a difficult group. But hey, you’re in the World Cup with the best squads in the world. So it’s a pleasure and we’re starting this process with an eye on the future,” said Lapeña.
Unlike international soccer, where the World Cup is the ultimate trophy, the Olympics are considered the grand prize in basketball.
“The World Cup is a milestone for us,” said Bartlett. “But ultimately, winning the Olympics is the indicator of success for basketball at the international level.”
Americans might be more vulnerable than usual
Winning for non-US countries is essentially silver or bronze. The USA has won gold in five of the last six World Cups and in each of the last eight Olympic Games.
But it could be vulnerable in Australia, missing legends Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, as well as a new Minnesota Lynx head coach, bank boss Cheryl Reeve.
Still, the Americans will be stocked with WNBA talent.
The rest of the roster is younger, with returning collegiate players Aaliyah Edwards, Laeticia Amihere and Pellington, as well as newcomers Phillipina Kyei and 17-year-old high schooler Cassandre Prosper.
Ultimately, progress counts as success for Canada in Australia.
“Not to say we allow ourselves the World Cup,” Bartlett said, “but all those things [Lapeña’s] Leading into and through the World Cup really indicates being ready to win [at the Paris 2024 Olympics].”