Nigeria’s pre-Olympic scrimmages against three of the top four teams in the world, with wins against the USA and Argentina, indicate that D’Tigers winning a medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo is not that far-fetched.
They rounded off their pre-Olympic qualification on Tuesday by suffering a 108-69 blowout loss to number three-ranked Australia, a team they will face in their opening game at the Olympics later this month.
But heavy as that defeat was, it had already been tempered by the US win in particular, and instantly threw the spotlight on a team that had been struggling for recognition, even back home.
No-one expected the Nigerians to beat the world’s best side. In two previous meetings, the Americans had claimed victory by over 80 and 40 points respectively.
At best, the expectations were for a much closer margin of defeat. But this iteration of D’Tigers, led by Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, had other ideas.
A change in attitude
Nigeria have always believed in their ability to conquer Africa. One Afrobasket championship in 2015, and two silver and three bronze medals, are a testament to the consistency and strength of the Nigeria team on the continent.
The last FIBA World Cup, in 2019, was the tournament where the team, dominated by current and former NBA players, were expected to do great things. But they failed to make it out of the group stage.
This refurbished team, however, seems to legitimately believe they can beat anybody they face, despite playing very few games as a unit.
Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie told ESPN: “I never think anything is a surprise when we win or beat a team because the amount of preparation the coaching staff and we as players put in. We don’t prepare to lose, ever.
“We don’t practice to lose. Ever. We come up with a game plan to try to win a game and when that is the outcome, you congratulate each other because that is a job well done.
“And then we move on to the next game. We win a game or lose a game, we watch film and move on to the next game.”
Nigeria battled aggressively against Team USA, making bucket after bucket and more importantly, stop after stop. Against Argentina, they dominated the paint, and outboarded the wily and experienced South Americans on both ends of the floor.
Even in their blowout loss against Australia, there was no acceptance of inevitability, but a desire to understand the reasons for the loss, learn from the experience, and prepare to do better in the next game, so that nothing is a surprise.
The refusal to accept that defeat against higher-ranked opposition as an inevitability is something that is new to this team.
Learning with every game
Win or lose, Mike Brown says his team is constantly learning. They may have won their first game against Team USA, but they made adjustments and played a different game against Argentina.
And although they lost against Australia, they still took it as opportunity to learn, according to Brown, who told ESPN in an echo of Okogie: “Every time we step on the floor, we want to win.
“It is not a bad thing to sometimes learn from a game that you won. This game [against Australia] was a great learning experience for us, it will be a great learning experience for us going forward.”
Still, the coach concedes that his team did not play to their levels in getting beaten so badly.
He said: “I thought there were times that we didn’t compete at the level that we are capable of. If we did, maybe the point differential might not be as big.
“Something we are going to have to understand going into tournaments like this is that every single point counts for the 40 minutes that you play.
“And so we have to play from start to finish and try not to let that point differential be as big as it is, if we are on the losing end.
“It is good from the standpoint that there are a lot of things that we can learn from it, and maybe bring us down to earth a little bit from everyone patting us on the back.”
Winning on and off the court
That victory over the USA was the catalyst for a new groundswell of support for the basketball team. With the football teams failing to qualify for the Games, there was a gap in fandom for the Games outside of athletics.
Basketball — where the women’s team also qualified — was struggling to gain any traction, despite a slew of NBA players on the men’s roster.
That one game changed everything. And when they proved it was no fluke by beating Argentina two days later, fans fell in love, as evidenced by the near-tripling of their official social media handles.
But in Toyko they will play in an empty stadium, against teams who are not using the games as a warm up series, and their lessons from Vegas will need to stick in order to advance to the knock outs, let alone win a medal.