One of Canada's national senior basketball teams has been to the Olympics (once) and world championships (twice) in the past decade. And as excitement slowly builds around the future potential of the men's team, it's important to remember what the women, currently ranked ninth in the world, have accomplished already.
Last summer at the London Olympic qualifiers in Turkey, Canada's back was against the wall following a loss to Croatia. In a do-or-die scenario, it then proceeded to beat Argentina and Japan -- the clincher on Canada Day no less -- to punch its ticket to the Summer Games.
"That was pretty neat to go through," said Lisa Thomaidis, named Canada's head coach on March 20.
Thomaidis, who had been an assistant with the senior women's squad for 11 years before taking the reins from former head coach Allison McNeill, knows the goal is to protract that success, starting this September with qualifying for the 2014 FIBA women's worlds. Going forward, it will essentially be the same young squad from London -- a team McNeill said last year was one of the closest she's ever coached.
"The transition, I hope, will be fairly seamless," said Thomaidis, who will also continue to coach at the University of Saskatchewan.
"We were still the youngest team at the Olympics."
Youth is good, but in terms of the bigger picture, Thomaidis needs the young players to become veterans.
"The key to our success down the road is keeping our players playing until their late 20's," she said. "We can't [constantly] go into international competitions with collegiate players."
While the issues surrounding the men's program over the past two decades have been well documented, the women have had different challenges.
"The men have this huge bubble of talent in the younger age group that is going to explode onto the scene, whereas us, we've consistently been putting people through our national team program," Thomaidis said.
'We need media attention'
The issue hasn't so much been getting girls to commit to the program, but more of the same challenges all women's sports face: visibility.
"We are one of the targeted sports for [the Own the Podium program]," she said. "That's a huge plus for us moving forward.
"The other thing is ... we need media attention. We need people to know who our players are, to get behind our national team ... similar to what's happened with women's hockey in Canada."
As far as player development itself goes, Thomaidis echoes Rowan Barrett, the general manager of the senior men's team, in his thoughts that, while the NCAA represents the highest-level collegiate system, some Canadian players would be better served in terms of development to look to the CIS.
"It's all about the fit," Thomaidis said. "You want players to be able to play at a high level, but you also want them to be able to compete consistently.
"They have to have the opportunity to get on the floor and, if their only opportunity is at practice, it's limited. So you really have to choose your schools wisely."
And with CIS schools now offering more scholarships, there's more opportunity for that, "so it's not seen that the NCAA is the only pathway," Thomaidis added.
'It's really encouraging'
One Canadian excelling down south that clearly made the right schooling decision is forward Natalie Achonwa. The 6-foot-3 junior has had a huge season for Notre Dame (The Fighting Irish were playing Duke Tuesday night for a berth in the women's Final Four), posting a university-record 17 double-doubles.
"It's really encouraging to see to see how well she's doing," Thomaidis said of Achonwa, a Guelph, Ont., native who has been with the national program since she was 16.
"We had the [National Elite Development Academy] program where high school kids from across the country came and trained in Hamilton," she continued. "I think you can really see the benefit of that program now with those kids playing at a high level."
Like the men's program has demonstrated as well, identifying that golden-age crop of young talent in this country is a must. It's another reason for optimism from Canada Basketball and, with the women, there have already been some results.
Thomaidis says chemistry and cohesion are a big part of that.
"The optimism is there because we've had steady levels of performance and success over the last six years," she said.
To no observer's surprise, UNLV forward Anthony Bennett of Brampton, Ont., confirmed his declaration Monday for the NBA draft in June. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward led the Runnin' Rebels in points and rebounds in his lone collegiate season in Las Vegas. He's projected certainly in the Top 10, some say Top 5. Pre-draft workouts will be big for him because the knock on his game going pro is that he might be too much of a 'tweener -- not fast enough to play the three, not big enough to play the four.
Follow John Chick on Twitter @roofthatpeach
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