Barely two months since being ranked No. 4 in FIBA’s world rankings heading into the Olympic Games, Nigeria’s men’s national basketball team find themselves in a completely different position going into the 2021 AfroBasket.
Africa’s No. 1-ranked team are a distant No. 7 on the FIBA AfroBasket seedings as the tournament in Rwanda gets underway this week, and for good reason.
Even given their underwhelming results in Tokyo, the Olympic team would have been runaway favourites to win the tournament, had they been named for AfroBasket. But they were not, and FIBA took that into consideration.
“The chances of the No. 1 team in Africa winning their second AfroBasket since 2015 are now being questioned,” the body said, noting the distinct lack of superstars for the tournament in Kigali.
Stacked with an embarrassment of riches, head coach Mike Brown had a hard time making cuts to his roster ahead of the Olympic Games. Those options have been drastically reduced for the AfroBasket.
The Golden State Warriors associate head coach was hoping to populate his squad with players from the top divisions in Europe, but the European clubs have opted to hold on to their players with the season so close at hand.
With a weakened squad, winning the tournament will be quite the mountain to climb, but Brown is confident in his team regardless.
“We don’t need NBA guys to win this,” Brown told ESPN. “We could win this with the team I brought in November 2020. I’m not a pessimist; I am a realist, though. We’ll compete, it’s just going to be really hard.”
Despite being shorn of the top players, long-time captain and former NBA star Ike Diogu says D’Tigers, champions in 2015 and runners-up two years later, will go into the AfroBasket with a target on their backs.
“I think there is a target on our back because we’re the No. 1 team in Africa,” Diogu told ESPN. “So we’re always going to get everybody’s best game as everybody saw on the second window of games during the qualifiers.
“That means we just have to take it one step at a time because we know that any team in Africa is capable of beating us if we are not prepared, but we are also equal to the task of being No. 1.
“Everybody is coming after us, which actually makes it tougher, but at the same time as competitors we look forward to the challenge.”
Diogu, who did not go to Tokyo and is not on the roster for the AfroBasket, concedes the competition will be stiff and somewhat unpredictable.
“It is very tough,” the veteran said. “African basketball is tough in general. It’s a very physical style of basketball, and once you get to the knockout round anything can happen.
“So we don’t think anything is going to be easy, because in 2013 we were undefeated and we lost to Senegal on the quarterfinals, which ultimately cost us a chance in the world championship in 2014.
“I don’t think any of the players want to have that feeling. We want to go out and try to play as best as we can, but we also know that there are really tough teams in Africa.”
Tough as it may be, the goal is to win the title after the disappointment of 2017.
“This team wants to remain the No. 1 team in Africa,” Diogu said.
“It is very important to us and, like I said, we want that championship that eluded us in 2017.”
One of Nigeria’s tougher opponents will be Kenya, who are led by Australian coach Liz Mills, the first woman to lead a men’s international team to a major tournament.
Diogu had nothing but praise for the Aussie tactician, who team Nigeria will face on Aug. 27, saying: “She did an absolutely phenomenal job to qualify Kenya for the AfroBasket.
“I respect Coach Liz because she is one of the people [who] have really been hands on when it comes to African basketball. She has been a pioneer, been at different teams, and this is just the hard work paying off.
“She has been able to spot the basketball potential in the African continent, so that is why I have nothing but respect for her because she is one of the first people to come over to Africa whereas a lot of people were shying away from coming to Africa.
“She accepted it, she didn’t complain, she knew that it was going to be tough working with a new squad of basketball players, but she came in, still.
“She does it best the way no-one else does. And after all her hard work, she deserves everything that is coming her way.
“What she has done will open a lot of doors for others.”
The AfroBasket tipped off on Aug. 24 and runs until Sept. 5.