New-look Canadian women's basketball team eyes forward progress at World Cup
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Canada's former head coach Lisa Thomaidis spoke to the depth of international women's basketball, saying 10 teams were legitimate podium contenders.
The analysis proved prescient. Canada, ranked fourth, didn't even advance out of the group stage. And while the top-ranked Americans won gold, it was No. 8 Japan scoring a surprising silver and No. 6 France grabbing bronze.
Now, the world's top women's basketball players are set to reconvene in Australia for the FIBA World Cup, held every four years and widely regarded as the biggest non-Olympic tournament in the sport.
While the format is slightly different, the challenge remains the same: Canada must win multiple games against top-tier opponents.
And one thing is identical to Tokyo — Canada's opening contest is against Serbia. In Japan, a tough shooting night felled the Canadians. They'll attempt to turn the tables Down Under on Wednesday.
Victor Lapeña, who replaced Thomaidis as head coach in January, said he's beginning to feel his predecessor's pain.
"You don't have time to build a team," Lapeña said. "So you have to play this and this and this. And we'll try to mix. Now, I'm changing some ideas to try to mix more mechanics with freedom."
Lapeña has only helmed Canada for two official games, both of which occurred in February in Japan, when Canada lost to the hosts in overtime before bouncing back to rout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"The team that played in Japan competed very well. But we played without [Phoenix Mercury guard] Kia [Nurse], we played without [University of Arizona point guard] Shaina [Pellington], so this is the most difficult for me," Lapeña said.
"What kind of style we are going to have with Kia on the court, with Shaina? What kind of basketball will we play if Shay Colley is out and I have to use, for example, Nirra Fields as a point guard?"
The lengthiest amount of time Lapeña's had to instill his system, which he says emphasizes ball possession and movement and gives players more freedom than before, has been in the leadup to the World Cup. The team spent time at its training centre in Edmonton before relocating to Australia for exhibition games ahead of the tournament.
It wouldn't be all that surprising to see Canada win silver or lose all five of its group-stage matches.
Lapeña's free-flowing style — borrowed from legendary Spanish soccer coach Pep Guardiola — can be high-variance. If it works, Canada will look like it's played together for years. If it doesn't, it'll look like a turnover-filled mess.
"The goal is not to [play] defence. No, our goal is to get the ball for us to attack. You know Pep Guardiola? They are all the time passing the ball. Because they want the ball to make their rival tired. This is what I want to do," Lapeña said.
Lead assistant Noelle Quinn, who doubles as head coach of the Seattle Storm and joined Team Canada alongside Lapeña, should offer fresh perspective as a former player on the bench.
"I had a funny conversation with [veteran Natalie] Achonwa shortly after the qualifier in Tokyo in February," Canada Basketball CEO Michael Bartlett recalled. "I asked Nat, 'How was Victor?' She gave me some awesome feedback. I was like, 'How was Noelle?' And Nat's like, 'Oh my God, I forgot she was new. She just kind of felt like she had been part of our program before and for a long time.'"
For a variety of reasons, Canadian teams also typically spend less time together throughout the year than other national federations.
On the bright side, the more forgiving World Cup format should give Canada more time to gel.
At the Olympics, there were just three group-stage games, and the opener against Serbia proved to be Canada's downfall. The group stage at the World Cup features five contests per team.
Canada also plays France, Japan, Mali and No. 3 Australia. The top four teams in each of the two groups reach the quarter-finals.
"Difficult tournament because we are in a tough group. But hey, you are in the World Cup with the best rosters in the world. So it's a joy and we start this process looking for the future," Lapeña said.
Unlike international soccer, where the World Cup is the ultimate trophy, the Olympics are viewed as the main prize in basketball.
"The World Cup is a milestone for us," said Bartlett. "But ultimately winning at the Olympics is the marker of success for basketball internationally."
Americans could be more vulnerable than usual
Winning, for non-American countries, essentially mounts to silver or bronze. The U.S. has won gold in five of the past six World Cups and each of the last eight Olympics.
However, it could be vulnerable in Australia with the absences of legends Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner in addition to a new head coach in Minnesota Lynx bench boss Cheryl Reeve.
Still, the Americans will be stocked with WNBA talent.
Canada, meanwhile, is carrying just two players who saw the court this WNBA season: Bridget Carleton, arguably the team's top player in Tokyo, and newly appointed captain Natalie Achonwa.
Kia Nurse, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, is set to make her return to the court on a minutes restriction.
The rest of the roster tilts younger, with returning college player Laeticia Amihere and newcomer Phillipina Kyei.
Ultimately, progress counts as success for Canada in Australia.
"Not to say we're giving ourselves a pass on the World Cup," Bartlett said, "but all these things that [Lapeña's] doing leading into the World Cup and through the World Cup are really pointing towards being ready to win [at the Paris 2024 Olympics]."