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Canada chooses young basketball teams for Commonwealth Games

With an eye to the future, Canada is sending young basketball squads to the Gold Coast Games, which run April 4 to 15. With the NBA and many other pro leagues in session and with March Madness underway, the timing of the Games was awkward.
Calgary Dinos' Mambi Diawara, left, will represent Canada at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. (File/The Canadian Press)

The basketball adventure continues for Mambi Diawara and David Kapinga.

Just 15 days after leading the University of Calgary to its first ever national men's basketball title, the two leave Monday for Australia and the Commonwealth Games. They will be joined by Ryerson's Manny Diressa and Jean-Victor Mukama, who finished runner-up in a tight 79-77 U-Sports final.

The four players combined for 86 points in the title game, with Kapinga named championship MVP.

Catherine Traer, who helped Carleton to the women's U Sports crown, will also be boarding a plane Monday with the women's Commonwealth Games team.

With an eye to the future, Canada is sending young basketball squads to the Gold Coast Games, which run April 4 to 15. With the NBA and many other pro leagues in session and with March Madness underway, the timing of the Games was awkward. Australia's requirement for visas added to the complications when it came to planning.

Canadian men's coach Kirby Schepp, whose day job is head coach at the University of Manitoba, has chosen an all U Sports roster in looking to see who can compete at the next level.

"We're definitely a young group but our athleticism is good and I think we'll definitely get up and down the court," said Schepp, who has spent the last eight summers as part of Canada Basketball's coaching staff. "We'll certainly be able to put some pressure on the ball and get after people a little bit.

"We'll see how it all kind of shakes out. Our youth could help us in some way and hurt us in some ways but I'm hoping it can help us with certainly our style of play."

Some have already represented Canada.

UBC forward Grant Shephard was a member of the squad that won the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017 in Cairo. Carleton guard Munis Tutu was part of the team that won silver at the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Colorado Springs. Schepp was part of that coaching staff.

Kapinga, Diawara, Manitoba's Justus Alleyn, UBC's Conor Morgan and Acadia's Erik Nissen were all on Canada's team for the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taiwan.

Steve Baur has taken a different route with the Games women's squad. His roster draws on U Sports, Europe, NCAA, Canadian college and even high school ranks.

"Our main objective in forming the roster were athletes that we have targeted for either 2020 or 2024 Olympic teams," said Baur, an assistant coach with the senior women's national team. "We're using this as an evaluation period. To get a chance to get some time with them and see them against other pro athletes from different countries."

The youngsters include 16-year-old Merissah Russell and 17-year-old Niyah Becker.

Russell is a forward from Ottawa who has played for Canada's under-15 and under-16 teams. Becker, a forward from Winnipeg who has played for the national U17 squad, is headed to the University of Utah from Hamilton's Lincoln Prep.

Ruth Hamblin, a former Oregon State Beaver who has played professionally in Australia and France, and Shay Colley of Michigan State were part of the senior team last summer that qualified for the world championships.

Danielle Boiago, a former McMaster star, played pro in Europe but became available when she parted ways with her Dutch club.

"I do think we'll have strength in our interior and size," said Baur. "Australia will match up with size-wise but I think against some of the other countries that will be a place we can lean on a bit as both our interior scoring and interior defence."

The Gold Coast Games mark only the second time basketball has been part of the Commonwealth Games program. Canada did not enter basketball teams in Melbourne in 2006.

The Canadian men are in Pool A with Australia, Nigeria and New Zealand. Pool B is made up of England, Cameroon, India and Scotland.

Schepp expects the Australians, known as the Boomers, and New Zealand, known as the Tall Blacks, to field strong teams drawing on their pro National Basketball League.

The Canadian women are also in Pool A, with Australia, England and Mozambique. Pool B is comprised of New Zealand, Jamaica, India and Malaysia.

Liz Cambage and Tessa Lavey will lead a strong Australian Opals squad.

Both Canadian teams open play April 6 when the men take on Australia at the Cairns Convention Centre and the women face England at the Townsville Entertainment and Convention Centre.

In both competitions, all four teams from Pool A – the so-called power pool – will advance along with the top two from Pool B. The top two countries in Pool A will get byes to the semifinal with the remaining four teams meeting in quarter-finals to decide who joins them.

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