The latest round of qualifiers for Afrobasket 2021, the continent’s basketball championship, concluded over the weekend with events in Rwanda and Egypt.
BBC Sport Africa’a Janine Anthony looks at what we have learnt from the five days of competition.
It’s not over in November
Like all sport around the world the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the qualifying campaign and may have left some confused!
There are a total five groups with four nations in each and there are sets of round robin games in each pool.
The final phase of qualifying began back in February with Group C in Cameroon ahead of the global lockdown, with the hosts taking on Guinea, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea.
Groups A, B and D played their first set of round robin games in the Rwandan capital Kigali while Group E took place in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
All the pools will play a final set of round robin games in February next year to decide the qualifiers for Afrobasket 2021, which will be held in Rwanda.
Fifteen of the twenty teams will qualify for Afrobasket to join hosts Rwanda, meaning only the bottom-placed teams in each group will eventually be eliminated.
However even though the top sides in each of the groups have recorded three wins from three so far none of them have quite guaranteed a place in the finals.
Similarly the teams who have lost all three of their games so far still have an outside chance of clinching a spot at the continental show-piece.
- Tunisia: Won 3 Lost 0
- DR Congo: Won 2 Lost 1
- CAR: Won1 Lost 2
- Madagascar: Won 0 Lost 3
- Senegal: Won 3 Lost 0
- Angola: Won 2 Lost 1
- Kenya: Won1 Lost 2
- Mozambique: Won 0 Lost 3
- Ivory Coast: Won 3 Lost 0
- Cameroon: Won 2 Lost 1
- Equatorial Guinea: Won1 Lost 2
- Guinea: Won 0 Lost 3
- Nigeria: Won 3 Lost 0
- South Sudan: Won 2 Lost 1
- Mali: Won1 Lost 2
- Rwanda: Won 0 Lost 3
- Egypt: Won 3 Lost 0
- Uganda: Won 2 Lost 1
- Cape Verde: Won1 Lost 2
- Morocco: Won 0 Lost 3
Five-star performances for Africa’s top 4
Tunisia, Senegal, Nigeria and Egypt made perfect starts to their qualifying groups with three wins out of three.
In Group A the defending champions Tunisia began with a convincing 37-point win over Madagascar before going on to beat both DR Congo and CAR sending out a clear message that they are determined to retain their title in 2021.
Senegal began their Group B campaign with an even more convincing win as they crushed Kenya 92-54, but their victories over Mozambique and Angola were a lot closer.
New coach Boniface Ndong will be satisfied that his team have a virtually guaranteed a place at Afrobasket 2021.
Nigeria’s D’Tigers were missing its NBA and EuroLeague players but still recorded a 100% record in Group D with wins over South Sudan, Rwanda and Mali.
They were led by ‘Captain Fantastic’ Ike Diogu as he weighed in with an average of 16 points per game.
Egypt, who hosted Group E, were represented by young squad of players with an average age of 25 years whose hunger saw them beat Uganda, Cape Verde and Morocco.
Some of their stars Aly Ahmed and Ehab Amine, who were named MVPs of the Under-18 African Championships in 2010 and 2012 respectively, as well as Anas Mahmoud have all played college basketball in the USA.
The master overcomes the apprentice
The opening Group D encounter saw Nigeria face South Sudan as two former NBA colleagues clashed as coaches.
Nigeria were coached by Mike Brown, who was in charge at the Cleveland Cavaliers when South Sudan boss Luol Deng was a player.
Brown had joined the Nigeria National team after four years as assistant coach of NBA powerhouse, Golden State Warriors.
Deng and South Sudan were late replacements in the qualifiers after Algeria withdrew, citing poor preparations as a result of Covid-19.
The late notice saw South Sudan Basketball Federation president Deng step in as coach of the national team.
“I took this chance and jumped in as a coach because we had a late notice. I knew I wasn’t going to turn it down (because) we had five days to prepare,” said Deng as he became the first federation president to also be the national team coach.
“There was no time to go look for a coach. I know what it means for our country to be represented. I’m fine with being coach for now but in future, I don’t think I’ll be the coach.”
The ‘master’ ultimately proved too strong for the ‘apprentice’ as the 2015 Afrobasket winners Nigeria won the game 76-56.
“Their style is very similar to Golden State where they spread the floor and get shots up but it was a good experience to face him,” Deng said after the loss.
Uganda a diamond in the rough
Perhaps the biggest revelation of this qualifying series were Uganda’s Silverbacks who defeated Cape Verde and Morocco and showcased a spirited display to lose out to Group E leaders, Egypt.
For a team that finished in 15th at the 2015 Afrobasket and then 13th two years later, these qualifiers seem to hint at a change in fortunes.
The player of the tournament in Egypt was USA-born small forward Ishmail Wainwright, who plays in France for SIG Strasbourg.
He took the honour after averaging 21 points per game and finishing the qualifiers with 64 points, completely overwhelming Cape Verde when he dropped 36 points including 5 three-pointers.
Uganda also had three players make top 10 of the highest scorers at the qualifiers list, the most fielded by a national team.
Finishing second puts them in good stead to qualify and maybe even impress at the Afrobasket finals.
Angola play ball with BAL
With all the problems plaguing the sport in Africa this year especially the domestic scene taking big financial hits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it was a welcome sight to see the Angola squad made up mainly from local side Petro de Luanda.
The club was reportedly the only team training in recent months for the Basketball Africa League (BAL) which is the flagship NBA and Fiba collaborative basketball competition for the continent.
The inaugural BAL has now been delayed until next year so the Angola Basketball Federation decided that it was wise to name nine players from Petro de Luanda for the qualifiers in Kigali, where they lost just one game to Senegal.
Angola, once the dominant force in Africa winning six titles in a row between 1999 and 2009, will still be one of the favourites to qualify for the finals.
Debuts, a disappointment and a touch of optimism
Three coaches made their debuts in the tournament and all three will be satisfied with their first taste of Afrobasket.
Senegal’s Ndong and Nigeria’s Brown went home with three wins out of three while former Great Britain Olympian Deng led South Sudan to two wins after less than a week of preparation.
Rwanda will surely now realise they have a lot of work to do on the court ahead of hosting next year’s finals.
They lost all three of their games in Group D but are safe in the knowledge that they are assured of a place at the finals as hosts.
All the teams at the bottom of the other groups will be hoping that Rwanda can improve ahead of the final qualifiers as that will open up a place for the best fourth-placed team.
According to the tournament regulations: “In case Rwanda is ranked first, second or third in this group, then the three highest-placed teams will make it to the final tournament from Group D.
“This also means that the best fourth-placed team in all the five groups, based on the classification rules of the Official Basketball Rules, shall obtain the last spot for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021, making a total of 16 teams.
“However, should Rwanda finish in fourth position, all Group D teams will qualify for the Fiba AfroBasket 2021.”
One man who had to head home disappointed was Preston Bungei who travelled from the USA to play with Kenya’s Team Moran in Kigali but was not able to play as he did not have the correct Kenyan documents (having never been to Africa prior to this).
After months of sports having to be played behind closed doors, there was a bonus for the teams playing in Kigali as some fans were allowed to attend the games BUT only if they could provide negative Covid-19 test results.
Whether even more fans will be allowed to watch the last round of qualifiers and whether they will be at the finals remains to be seen but with vaccines now in the approval process optimism abounds.