On Thursday, August 19, when Mike Brown, head coach of Nigeria’s senior men’s national basketball team, D’Tigers announced his final 12-man strong squad to prosecute Nigeria’s participation at the 2021 FIBA Afrobasket competition holding in Kigali, Rwanda, a key positive of the preparation for and the lessons of the Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan could not be missed.
The lessons derived but the team from the Olympics and the storefront experience of the coaching crew are benefits that the team can draw from to better their chances – from the high level preparations for the Olympics and the admittedly disappointing win-less performance in Tokyo – for what will hopefully be beneficial in the Rwanda-hosted continental competition. This will dovetail perfectly with the expressed desire of Brown to build a legacy with D’Tigers.
The coach, who has earned a reputation for his experience, especially with the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association (NBA), as associate head coach, knows what it takes to win. More importantly, however, he knows that it takes a lot of guts to come back from the disappointments of high expectations and overwhelming disappointments with his determination to continue with the team.
After receiving a vote of confidence from the President of the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF), Musa Kida, Brown’s entire team will need determination as well. This is necessary after the experience of losses encountered against some of the best basketball teams in the world at the Olympics. Two earlier defeats to Australia and Germany were followed by a third in their group game, a 80-71 defeat to Italy. That sounded the final knell of their participation at the Games and was the end of the road for the Basketball hopes of Team Nigeria.
There was disappointment for those who had high hopes for D’Tigers too. It was not the exciting Games that their star cast of players and pre-Olympics exhibition show in Las Vegas promised. Worse still, it fell short of their fourth-best team of the 12 countries that qualified ranking conferred on them by the world basketball governing body, FIBA, as they headed into Tokyo for the Games.
In their first game against the Boomers of Australia, D’Tigers offence was squarely targeted to limit their offence transition towards the Australian hoop. Brown persistently dictated instructions from the sidelines to get D’Tigers forward and it helped but the Boomers tied things up to end the first quarter at 23-23. Yet, D’Tigers struggled with the offence and seemed too error-prone to seize opportunities in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, the Boomers energy and pressure on the defensive end continued to pay dividends for the best basketball team coming into the Summer Games.
To their advantage, Australia’s flagbearer and four-time Olympian Patty Mills, was a bundle and a half. His sensational stifling defence was a game-decider. The 31-year-old Mills impressed on both sides of the ball, and his pin-point three-point shooting and leadership was enough to give the Boomers the win. They had beaten Nigeria 108-69 in the exhibition game in Las Vegas and repeated it in the group opener, with a lower margin 84-67.
The second loss to Germany by a tight 99-92 margin was more painful and disappointing. The single-minded purpose behind coach Brown’s acceptance of the job, which was to let the world reckon with the tenaciousness of the Nigerian spirit and who assembled a competent squad of talents to bring that about, was unravelling as their progress was in danger. Milwaukee Bucks Nigerian basketball player Jordan Nwora turned up an inspiring solo performance. Yet, his 33 points haul was insufficient to swing the result in D’Tigers favour.
Again, for the second straight game, an uninspiring final quarter made it a day to forget especially after all the efforts the team put into their second round tie. D’Tigers played valiantly after ending behind in the first quarter to bring the scores to level out at 50-50 at half time. But, the Germans played a tactical half by purposely attacking Nwora’s game, closing in on him every time and not allowing him the freedom of his three-pointers in the first half to continue. Miye Oni also racked up double figures for the D’Tigers, but the Germans had four players on double figures, with Johannes Voightman the top scorer with 19 points.
After those losses, the window to qualify out of the group stages had slimmed down to permutations but Nigeria still had to beat Italy to have any sort of shot at qualifying to make all the efforts of assembling the best Nigeria can offer and the high goals of coach Mike Brown worthwhile. However, as has been the case in each of the two prior group games, a poor fourth quarter undid the efforts of D’Tigers and the coaching crew as Italy triumphed.
In that unfortunate final quarter, the Italians took advantage of a 14-0 run to round up their points to 80 and ensure that irrespective of what happened in the other match between the Boomers of Australia and Team Germany, Nigeria was not going to go beyond Group B of the Basketball event of the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. D’Tigers lacked the clinical finishing that often distinguishes winners at this high level of competitions from the rest of the field.
Yet, even in the gloom of the loss to the Italians, a glimmer of opportunity was not lost. Brown’s charges did their utmost. Chimezie Metu, power forward of the Sacramento Kings scored 22 points to lead the individual Nigerian score. That was closely followed by Jordan Nwora’s 20 points. Jahlil Okafor was next with 14 points and together with the point accumulation of his teammates helped Nigeria take a 63-56 to the end of the third quarter.
Only Nigeria’s predilection for poor final quarters stood between them and at least one victory in Japan. If they held on resolutely, they could have beaten Germany. They failed to do so again and Italy went on a scoring run without a single point for D’Tigers in seven of the 10 final quarter minutes. Nico Mannion, Italy’s second highest scorer made a 3-pointer with 29.9 seconds left on the scoreboard to effectively seal the win for Italy and knock out Brown’s D’Tigers after their brilliant victories over the U.S. and Argentina before the Games.
There were some frustrations for the players and coaching crew with the way the organisation of their entire participation for the Games was poorly handled by the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC). Their trip to Japan wound up being a 30-hour ordeal instead of the planned 10-hour flight, cutting into their schedule of training, rest and preparations while they were sent to the Saitama Prefecture in Japan where they were based for the tournament, without the proper credentials. Also, four members of coach Brown’s staff, with whom he handled his coaching commitments and who made the trip to Japan, were never allowed in the Olympic village because of credential and paperwork issues.
All these side, the lessons to learn from the participation in the Games were the most important takeaway. Possession play was important to reduce takeovers and focus had to be maintained all through, but most especially in the final quarters, irrespective of the status of the opponent. D’Tigers were still Africa’s highest ranked team and can build on these lessons and the experience of Brown to bring the victories that are sure to come to reach the resolve of the coach to make D’Tigers a force in international basketball.
As they begin preparing for the AfroBasket competition, factors such as better organisation from the sports adminstration of Nigeria, and their support in providing the necessary conditions and resources for the team to prosper will constitute the assurance of better years ahead for basketball in Nigeria that will make the bitter pill of the failure to live up to the incredibly high expectations at the Olympics Games easier to swallow.
It has started with the lineup that coach Brown is putting together. According to the NBBF, Brown has invited some players to join his team such as Daniel Utomi, small forward for Vichy Clermont in France Pro B Division; Ikenna Ndugba, point guard who most recently played for Elon Phoenix; Emmanuel Omogbo power forward for KB Vëllaznimi of the Kosovo Basketball Superleague and Benjamin Emegolu, a free agent who last played for Avtodor Saratov of the VTB United League in Russia. St Chamond forward TK Edogi makes a return to the team after missing out of the Olympics contingent alongside the trio of Stephen Domingo, Jordan Ogundiran and Jeremiah Mordi.
The need to incorporate some local talent into the team, which has so far been predominantly composed of players from the NBA, for good reason going into the Olympics, meant coach Brown’s invitation also extended to some home-based professionals. First in the list was Ikechukwu Benjamin, point guard for Rivers Hoopers, the only Nigerian basketball team that represented the country at the maiden edition of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in Kigali, Rwanda. Benjamin’s teammate, point guard Victor Anthony Koko also got invited as well as the duo of Nwafor Celestine Joseph of Kano Pillars and Agu Ibe Aguchi of Gombe Bulls.
They are expected to arrive in Kigali on the Sunday, August 22 where they will camp, acclimatise and prepare to begin with their opener on Wednesday, August 25, against coach Moussa Sogore’s Mali basketball team. At the other side of that fixture will be a clash against the Morans of Kenya led by their coach Liz Mills. In their last Group C encounter, Brown’s charges will face Les Éléphants of Cote d’Ivoire managed by Paolo Povia.
It is hoped that the team will prove once again why they are Africa’s best with the disappointments of Tokyo behind them and the lessons from their Olympic experience giving them the edge over the competition. Finally, the basketball fans in the country will be counting in the talents at Brown’s disposal to improve upon the silver medal they took home at the 2017 edition of the competition which was jointly hosted by Tunisia and Senegal and which the Tunisians won. The gifted Rivers Hoopers coach Ogoh Odaudu will be on hand to assist Brown go for the top prize this time around.