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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The boys are back

For the first time since Seoul, court is in session for Canada


  Twelve years in the wilderness.

 That's how long it has been since Canada last played in the men's Olympic basketball tournament.

 To expect that Canada will atone in Sydney for all the frustrations endured since the 1988 Games in Seoul, and win Canada's first medal since a silver in 1936 in Berlin, would be folly.

 In fact, the Canadians were a surprise addition to this Olympic tournament, finishing second in Puerto Rico last summer to qualify when no one thought they could or would.

 They did it with guile, chemistry, defence and guts -- and they'll need all of the above to have success in Sydney.

 Canada goes into the Games ranked eighth of 12 teams. Its pool is frighteningly tough; the first opponent is host Australia, playing before a home crowd, and then, in order, Angola, Spain, and powerhouses Russia and Yugoslavia.

 And even if Canada does get out of its pool by finishing in the top four, it likely will have to finish better than fourth if it wants to avoid playing the likely gold medal winner -- the U.S.

 "We've got our work cut out for us, no question," said coach Jay Triano, a three-time Olympian as a player for Canada who is coaching at his first Olympic tournament.

 Canada will rely heavily on its NBA players, Victoria point guard Steve Nash and Winnipeg centre Todd MacCulloch. It was Nash, the Dallas Mavericks veteran, who carried the team in Puerto Rico.

 But the key to the tournament from Canada's point of view will be contributions from the entire roster. Malton shooting guard Sherman Hamilton and Scarborough small forward Rowan Barrett must score. Brampton forward Mike Meeks and Niagara Falls forwards Greg Newton and Peter Guarasci must bang. And everyone must play defence.

 "I think we'll be the best prepared of any team in the tournament," Meeks said.

 Best prepared, yes, but Canada lacks scoring punch, savvy and experience, all vital in the Olympic tournament.

 "The roles on the team have been established, we've got a lot of games under our belts now, and we know who we are," Meeks said.

 Triano is considered a player's coach, someone who was part of the Canadian teams that finished fourth in 1976 and 1984.

 "He has played against the best and won at every level," Meeks said. "He's the best coach I've played for, definitely."

 There's no question that Triano's influence was part of the reason Canada qualified for the Olympics. He has to recreate the same magic for Sydney.

 Canada will find out right away what it's made of when it faces the host Aussies. Canada played Australia twice in a pre-Olympic tournament in June and lost one of those games by just three points -- and that was without Nash and MacCulloch. It also faced Russia in the same tournament and lost by five.

 The next game, against Angola, is a must-win, and sets the stage for the key game of the tournament from Canada's perspective -- a pick-'em matchup against Spain, the fifth-place finisher at the world championships. That game will likely determine which team gets fourth place in the pool and advances to the medal round.

 "It doesn't matter who you play in the Olympics, the games are going to be tough," Meeks said. "But I think we can surprise some people. No one is going to consider us a threat, and I think that works in our favour."