AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers is going to be the 30th edition of the men's basketball continental championship in Africa.
Nigeria, the only African team to have booked Olympic tickets through the World Qualifying Tournament, headline the first round of the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 that will be co-hosted by Egypt and Rwanda.
The three-time Olympians currently considered one of the strongest African teams, will line-up against other continental powerhouses Angola, Senegal, and Tunisia.
At stake for the 16 teams in Alexandria and Kigali is a chance to finish in the top three places in their respective groups to qualify for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021.
Here's our guide to the key things you need to know ahead of the event set for November 25-29.
Nigeria’s Ike Diogu: We want to be champions again
With Tokyo Olympic qualification already secured, the 2015 AfroBasket champions Nigeria return to the continental scene as the favourites, eager to showcase their best form and seal their return to the 2023 World Cup.
The West African nation was the best-placed African team at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, earning one of the seven direct spots to the Olympics. And the East African city of Kigali offers them a perfect platform to ensure they remain perched on top of the continental rankings.
The star-studded Nigerian side has been drawn against Mali, hosts Rwanda and South Sudan who step in as late replacement for Algeria. The North Africans have withdrawn from the competition after five players tested positive for coronavirus. And due to their border closure over the pandemic their foreign based players cannot link up with the squad for training.
One of the newest members of the FIBA family, South Sudan headed by two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng will use the event to beef up its profile. They finished second in the preliminary qualifiers.
The new Nigerian coach Mike Brown, an associate head coach for the Golden State Warriors, named a 22-man squad that includes experienced and regular names like Ike Diogu and Udoh Ekpe, the former NBA power forwards.
Nigeria excluded some of it's NBA stars who helped them qualify for Tokyo at the 2019 World Championships in China. But captain Diogu, who played for six NBA teams between 2005 and 2012, sees this as an opportunity to field some future stars.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in Nigeria so it is going to be a chance to see some new faces, and I am looking forward to a new challenge,” Diogu, told Olympic Channel from his base in Phoenix, Arizona.
“It’s going be a good mix of young players and veterans. And I have had a chance to play with all of them in 2017 and the veterans since I’ve been playing in 2011.”
The 37-year-old Diogu was the most valuable player at the 2017 AfroBasket where Nigeria earned silver and is in good shape ahead of his fifth continental championships.
“We want to be champions again! That’s my goal and that’s why I have been training so hard with no day off. We want to be champions!- Ike Diogu
“But judging by what happened to us in 2013 when we were knocked out in the early in the tournament, we don’t want to take any team for granted. We know that any team can beat us, just like we are capable of beating any team there.
Mali is riding high
Nigerians are wary of the Malian team riding high on the success of their U19 squad that lost to the USA in the final of the FIBA U19 World Cup in July 2019.
Mali is likely to call up some of the junior stars like Oumar Ballo and Siriman Kanoute who were named in the U19 All-Star team. Mali’s silver medal was the best achievement ever by an African team at a global basketball tournament.
"We were very close to winning the [U-19] World Cup last summer. I feel like we can do more than that. In the next couple of years, we definitely can win it. It is basically the same generation that we are going to face in the next five to eight years,” Gonzaga’s Ballo said during an interview with Olympic Channel.
Mali’s captain Ibrahim Djambo who played in the last two editions of the AfroBasket supports the integration of the junior stars in the senior team.
"We are going to try to include them in the senior team, so they can become even better players. In two to three years everybody is going to be talking about them," Djambo told FIBA.
“They did it on the biggest stage, now being with the senior team is another important step in their careers.”
Rwandan coach Vladimir Bosnyak of Serbia has called up three foreign-based players to bolster their squad. The three are Jean-Victor Mukama who plays in the Netherlands, Dylan Schommer Kalecyezi from Switzerland's Fribourg Olympic, and Elias Ngoga of Blinn Junior College in the U.S.
The star-studded Senegalese team
Another exciting group to watch out for at the newly constructed Kigali arena will be group B featuring Africa’s most medalled nation Angola and Senegal. The group also includes Mozambique and Kenya.
Memphis Grizzlies’ centre Gorgui Dieng is among 25 pro players pre-selected by Senegalese coach Boniface Ndong for their Afrobasketball camp.
Boniface Ndong, the legendary Senegalese who played in three AfroBasket championships before retiring in 2011 has a monumental task of helping the Lions return to their glory years. The five-time AfroBasket champions last won the event in 1997.
Ndong is supported on the bench by another experienced retired star from the victorious 1997 squad, Makhtar Ndiaye. Ndiaye, the team manager, believes the current squad could be among the most gifted and skilled in recent times.
“We used to be the hunted, now we are the hunters.” Senegal team manager Makhtar Ndiaye
"We are outsiders. We have a lot of work to do. In 1997, we did not have the best players. We had the best team. That is the mentality we want to put on the floor. We cannot rely on the past,” he said.
Local club Petro players dominate Angola team
2008 Olympian Carlos Morais leads an Angolan side dominated by Petro Atletico de Luanda players.
Morais, a four-times Afro basketball champion is one of 12 players from Petro named by the stand-in national team coach Jose Neto.
Neto, a former Brazilian national team head coach who signed up with the reigning league champions in September, will guide the squad that includes only two foreign based players- Jacques Conceicao of Portuguese side Galitos Futbol Clube and Yanic Moreira of AEK Athens of Greece.
Moreira has been a regular member of the Angolan team for the last decade and has competed at two World Cups - 2010 and 2014.
Angola is the most successful team in the competition boasting 11 AfroBasket titles. But the Southern African team has struggled in the two previous editions since their last cup victory in 2013.
Tunisia: “We want to win the group”
Defending AfroBasket champions Tunisia are the top pick of pool A that also includes Seoul 1988 Olympians Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and a youthful Madagascar squad.
The north Africans now coached by German Dirk Bauermann will bank on their local players led by guard Omar Abada the star from Union Monastir, the national league champions. Unlike most teams, the Tunisians have been training together since August.
“With all due respect to our opponents, we want to win the group. Over the last 12 years, our mentality has been based on winning every game we play. With the new head coach, we are going to maintain that same philosophy," Abada told FIBA.
"We are aware that it won't be easy, but that's the reason why we're starting our preparations now as we need to get better as a team.”
Tunisia, Senegal, and Angola are the three African teams hoping to book a spot from the four remaining spots for Tokyo from the 2021 FIBA Olympic Qualifier.
Egypt: “Target is to be back where we belong”
Hosts Egypt will be in Alexandria where they last lifted the African title in 1983.
The north Africans will face off with arch-rivals Morocco, Uganda, and Cape Verde.
Egypt with seven Olympic appearances, the most of any African nation, has over the years struggled to find its winning edge.
Their sights are on the 2023 World Cup after a disappointing outing in China last year, and Paris 2024.
“We are building a new young team that I am confident will take the reins of Africa soon,” said Ehab Amin Egypt’s most expensive player ever who plays for Al Ahly.
“Egypt's target is to be back where we belong on the African map and World map, to compete for the AfroBasket and not just qualify for the World Cup and Olympics but to compete as well.”- Egyptian player Ehab Amin.
Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Guinea had already played their first-round Group C matches in Yaoundé during the February window before the tournament was postponed due to the pandemic.
The Ivorians finished unbeaten and lead the group ahead of Cameroon.
The top three teams from each group will qualify for FIBA AfroBasket 2021 to be held in Rwanda in February.