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Friday, September 22, 2000

Lead them not into temptation

  SYDNEY -- The battle now is not so much with their remaining opponents as it is with themselves.

 A perfect 3-0 and certain to get through to the quarter-finals -- possibly even the medal round -- the Canadian men's basketball team now must guard against being seduced by its own success.

 If the past few days have been any indication, it is a siren's call to which they will shut their eyes and ignore.

 "This is going to be a real test of our mental toughness, whether we can avoid getting caught up in being 3-0," head coach Jay Triano said shortly after pounding Spain for a third consecutive victory at the Olympic tournament.

 There is a natural temptation, particularly for a team that has not been at an event like this one in 12 years, to let giddiness take over in the rarefied air of sudden success.

 Euphoria can kill a team's hopes.

 That given, what was nearly as impressive as the victory against Spain was the utter absence afterward of any over-confidence. There was no swagger.

 You couldn't have helped, for instance, but be struck by the calm, controlled way Niagara Falls centre Peter Guarasci talked after the game against Spain. He had scored 17 points, led his team in rebounding and shut down Spain's dangerous power forward, Alphonso Reyes. But nothing he said would have given you any indication that he was overly impressed with the vital role he had played.

 It's a credit to Triano, but every player on his team maintains a similar, almost eerie, aura of quiet aplomb. All are conscious of what's going on -- they're human, too -- but to a man they seem resolved that the job is by no means finished.

 "Everyone has their role," Toronto's Rowan Barrett said. "You focus and you re-focus.

 "Of course we're happy, but now we're thinking of working (next opponent) Russia."

 Too often, Canadians have been content to compete on a world stage, rather than win. This team was not even supposed to qualify for the Olympics; it would have been too easy for all involved to be content with simply playing in Sydney. But this collection of players and the coaches appears to have a far bigger game in mind.

 "Every single day, this is what we've prepared for," Barrett said.

 "This is what we do. We work and we work and then we put what we've worked on into practice."

 The additional danger is becoming distracted by the bandwagon that will shortly hitch itself to the basketball team's story. The nation, if it has not done so already, shortly will fall in love with the possibilities that lie ahead. Try to fit the team with Cinderella's slipper, particularly so given Canada's overall Olympic struggles in recent days.

 But if you recall, the team made a vow a few weeks ago in Hawaii to stay as far away from distractions as possible. It was an attempt to re-create the sense of isolation and togetherness that led to success in Puerto Rico last summer.

 "(The players) haven't seen other events," Triano said. They haven't seen their families or girlfriends. They're just totally focused on the next step."

 As a result, even uncanny shooting performances like the ones turned in by Brampton forward Mike Meeks, or the fact Canada easily leads the tourney in points scored, are greeted with a sense of it being "nice, but so what."

 Triano knows what tournaments like this are like. Strange, unpredictable, things can happen. Injuries, bad officiating and upsets are part of the experience. The team must try to control what it can control, and make certain no one gets carried away with the success.

 Then, when things go wrong, you're in a position to deal.

 Russia, like Canada, is not a particularly big team. It relies on a pestering defence and has a knack for coolly weathering any storm an opponent whips up. It is capable of quick counterattacks, led by wily 35-year-old guard Serguei Bazarevitch.

 The story the Russia game (tonight, 11:30 EDT) will tell is how well Canada is blocking out its own accomplishments.

 If indications are correct, Russia will face a confident, not cocky, Canadian team, one determined to accomplish a good deal more -- dare we say it -- one game at a time.