Basketball·Preview

Canadian women's basketball team looks to take next step at Tokyo Olympics

The goal is clear for the Canadian women’s basketball team: play for a medal. After two straight Olympic quarter-final exits, the fourth-ranked team must now get over the hump and into the semifinals. Here's everything else you need to know about the Olympic women's basketball tournament.

Everything you need to know about the women's basketball tournament

Canada's Kia Nurse, seen above in 2019, should be the focal point of a Canadian team looking to win its first medal at the Tokyo Olympics. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The goal is clear for the Canadian women's basketball team: play for a medal.

After two straight Olympic quarter-final exits, the fourth-ranked squad must now get over the hump and into the semifinals. Anything less would be a failure.

The team appears to be at an ideal point of its development curve, with a mixture of Olympic veterans and budding stars dotting the roster around former WNBA all-star Kia Nurse.

"Our team identity is dynamic, relentless and together and so that's the team that I expect is going to show up. That's how you can expect us to play," head coach Lisa Thomaidis said after the roster was announced in June.

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In Tokyo, 12 teams are divided into three groups of four during the preliminary stage. Canada will play No. 8 Serbia on July 26 at 4:20 a.m. ET, No. 19 Korea on July 29 at 9 p.m. ET and No. 3 Spain on August 1 at 9 p.m. ET.

The top two teams from each group, plus two wild cards, advance to the quarter-finals, at which point the top four teams and bottom four teams are each placed in a pot. A random draw determines matchups for the first knockout round.

Quarter-finals begin August 4, with the semis on August 6, the bronze-medal match August 7 and the gold-medal game August 8.

Trio of WNBAers dot Canadian roster

Besides Nurse, Canada counts two more WNBA players on its roster with Minnesota's Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa.

Nurse rediscovered her shooting stroke in her first season with Phoenix, where she seems more comfortable as a premier role player than the offensive focal point she was last season with New York.

Carleton, a guard, and Achonwa, a forward, are similar in their abilities to play solid defence, make the right reads on offence and in Carleton's case, knock down an open three-pointer. 

Both are the types of player you want on your team, though not the stars you might expect to come from the WNBA.

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But Canada's strengths are depth and versatility.

Scoring shouldn't be an issue for a team that boasts longtime WNBA Kayla Alexander and South Carolina star Laeticia Amihere on the inside, plus the likes of guards Nirra Fields, Shaina Pellington and Shay Colley, all of whom could pop off in a given game.

Thomaidis should also be able to toy around with lineups based on the matchup.

A bigger lineup could feature Nurse and Carleton at guard with three forwards/centres, while a smaller look could see the two with a more natural point guard and switchable forwards like Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Aaliyah Edwards.

Thomaidis' offence features plenty of drive-and-kick, relying on outside shooting to open up space in the post for Alexander and Amihere.

Canada promises to play fast, creating transition opportunities with an aggressive defence.

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Can anyone knock off U.S.?

Like every Olympics, the U.S. is the team to beat.

The Americans have won 49 straight Olympic games — including 48 by double-digits — and six consecutive gold medals. Their team excluded past WNBA MVPs, the types of players that would lead any other country.

The latest iteration crosses generations, from veterans like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi to rising superstars such as Breanna Stewart and A'Ja Wilson. 

The perception of the women's basketball tournament is such that gambling sites offer non-U.S. odds, essentially betting on who will win silver.

But recently, the U.S. lost. The 2021 WNBA all-star game pitted the American team against the best of the rest — mostly a U.S. 'B' Team, with a couple international players.

The all-stars earned an eight-point victory, which could be viewed two ways. Perhaps there is fallibility on the Olympic team — hey, they just lost to an inferior squad. Or, the U.S. is such a dominant women's basketball force that a second-tier roster could also easily roll to gold.

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The Americans also lost to Australia soon after, making it the first time since 2011 they've lost two in a row.

It will be crucial for Canada to win its group to assure it avoids a quarter-final match against the U.S.

To do that, Canada must beat Spain, a team it lost to by 15 at the 2018 World Cup. Spain also took silver at the 2016 Olympics, and is led by Silvia Dominguez, a national-team stalwart since 2006.

No. 2 Australia also promises to be a force, despite the recent loss of star player Liz Cambage.

Nigeria, ranked 17th, had hoped to add U.S. snub Nneka Ogwumike, but the top sport court rejected the former WNBA MVP's appeal to join sisters Erica and Chiney Ogwumike.

France and Belgium arrive in Tokyo similarly to Canada, with some WNBA players aided by international veterans.

Canada's last and only Olympic basketball medal was a silver by the men at the 1936 Berlin Games in Nazi Germany, a 19-8 loss to the U.S. played amid pouring rain on an outdoor court.

For a country that's witnessed an NBA title to coincide with a rise in interest of the sport, an Olympic medal could now propel it even further.

The men won't get a chance to do that themselves, but it was always Canada's women who had a better shot.

It's not now or never — the future should remain bright regardless of the result in Tokyo.

But for a team that's played together and won together before, now would be as good a time as any to take that next step on international basketball's biggest stage.

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