Canada's roadmap to ending its soon-to-be 24-year Olympic men's basketball drought

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Canada's head coach Nick Nurse reacts to a call made by a referee during the semifinal loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's head coach Nick Nurse reacts to a call made by a referee during the semifinal loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

After a devastating, program-shaking loss to the Czech Republic in Saturday's semis, Canada won't qualify for men's basketball at Tokyo 2020.

The team last made the Olympics in 2000, when current assistant coach Michael Meeks was the leading scorer.

Meeks said the feeling after the latest setback reminded him of Canada's quarter-final loss in Sydney in terms of the fruitless second-guessing that could be done.

"There's a million avenues you could go down. But at this point now where we are, just immediately, I'm going into the mode of, 'OK, what do we have to do to get ready for the next opportunity to qualify and get us into the Olympic Games?'" Meeks told CBC Sports.

Here's the roadmap for breaking that Olympic drought at the 2024 Paris Games:

November 2021 — World Cup qualifying begins

The qualification windows for the 2023 World Cup are in November and February, with 32 teams ultimately set to take part in the competition.

Canada won't have its NBA players — or head coach Nick Nurse, assuming he remains with the organization — available, though the pure size of the tournament means there shouldn't be much issue punching a ticket.

But with eyes set on the 2024 Olympics, these windows are the first opportunity to begin building a foundation.

We just witnessed a far-more talented Canadian team (at least on paper) lose to a Czech squad committed to playing to its strengths. Nine of its players in Victoria were a part of its sixth-place 2019 World Cup team.

Mixed with some NBA-level skill in Tomas Satoransky and size in Jan Vesely and Ondrej Balvin, the Czechs were ultimately too much for an inexperienced Canadian squad to handle.

Though Canada did return six players from the 2016 Olympic qualifier, it introduced key new pieces in Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett, among others. The lack of chemistry showed especially in the half-court offence, where Canada's isolation-heavy attack stood in stark contrast to the Czech ball movement.

"The pool of athletes that we have to choose from, we're pretty blessed in that department," Meeks said. "It's just about getting the right core. Guys consistently coming and building on these experiences to just keep pushing us over that line."

Even without NBA players in November, it'll be crucial to include overseas professional talent that might stick around for the next cycle. Forward Andrew Nicholson is still just 31, with a game that should age well. Guard Trae Bell-Haynes didn't see much action in Victoria, but at 25 could grow into a core piece for the national team.

WATCH | Canada suffers heart-breaking loss to Czech Republic in Victoria:

September 2022 — FIBA AmeriCup

Once again, Canada will likely be without its NBA players as the tournament occurs roughly one month before the season begins.

The AmeriCup pits teams from North, Central and South America against one another and is generally viewed as the third-biggest tournament on the Canadian basketball calendar, well behind the World Cup and Olympics.

There's a chance Nurse would coach at the event, a first opportunity to begin instilling his playbook for Canada's overseas players.

Success at the AmeriCup would help Canada assert its place on the international basketball stage, and perhaps help catch the eye of a few of the more reticent NBA players, like Dillon Brooks and Chris Boucher.

August 2023 — World Cup

Running from late August to early September, the next edition of the World Cup will take place across Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

It's the first real opportunity to chart progress, as NBA players generally view the tournament within the same tier as the Olympics.

But at the 2019 event in China, Canada was let down as just two NBAers, Cory Joseph and Khem Birch, made the trip.

Two teams from the FIBA Americas zone qualify directly from the World Cup to the 2024 Olympics — essentially setting up a battle to win the second spot behind the U.S.

A good showing at the World Cup would set the stage for the next year for the program. Combine a decent turnout of NBAers with the institutional knowledge of a few players who participated in qualifying windows, and Canada could find that necessary mix of talent and chemistry to finally make its mark internationally.

"It's always kind of up in the air when it comes to the things that influence them being able to take part, whether it be contract, injuries, life decisions. But at least to my experience, there hasn't been a player that's like, 'Oh, I never want to play,'" Meeks said.

Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be entering their primes in 2023. Other young stars like RJ Barrett and Luguentz Dort will also still be on the rise. Maybe someone from the talented U-19 team, which is currently 2-0 at its own world championship, rises to the senior level.

WATCH | Glen Grunwald, CEO of Canada Basketball, discusses his optimism:

Meeks pointed to seven-foot-four centre Zach Edey, 19, as someone who could make an impact in the immediate future.

"Zach was really close to making this team, like it was literally splitting hairs," Meeks said. "He's just starting to scratch the surface of what he's going to be able to do down the road for us. … He has that kind of grit. He's kind of fearless."

At the very least, it's imperative Canada leave the tournament without a sense of what-if, like the one that lingered after 2019.

TBD — Paris 2024 last-chance qualifying tournaments

These aren't yet on the FIBA calendar, but the format will likely be similar to the past two in which Canada has participated: four spots remaining, win and you're in.

The next truly defining moment for Canada Basketball. It must reach the Paris Olympics.

Next time may come without the advantage of homecourt, but it should feature even more talent than in Victoria.

No longer can Canada leave its Olympic fates up to chance, like it did when Satoransky banked in the OT winner on Saturday.

"It's one of the highest emotional roller-coaster rides I've been on in this kind of situation for sure," Meeks said.

July 2024 — Paris Olympics

Just being there is crucial.

But making noise in France is equally important. It's the biggest opportunity for the sport to make an impact on Canada's national landscape. A chance for future generations to see a Canadian team succeed on international basketball's biggest stage.

Canada has won one men's basketball medal — a 19-8 loss to the U.S. to claim silver at the 1936 Berlin Games in Nazi Germany, played on a clay court amid pouring rain.

"Unfortunately, we didn't come out with the result that we wanted or needed [in Victoria]," Meeks said.

"We're so close. We're so close."

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