WHAT AN EXCITING LAST ROUND OF GROUP GAMES COMING UP!
Up till now, the Cameroon vs Egypt game is widely acknowledged as being by far the best game witnessed so far in Afrobasket 2015. Even the game commentators were lavish in their praise of that game; and for good reason. Both teams played up to the occasion and for the first time we saw two Afrobasket 2015 teams live up to their billing and not underperform. But as we move into the last round of group games, there is every real possibility that there will be a few games that will put the Egypt/Cameroon spectacle to shame.
Of particular interest are two key matchups. The basketball faithful all over the world are already salivating at the prospects of the Nigeria vs Tunisia matchup, and the Angola vs Senegal clash of the titans. These teams are the four top-ranked teams in the tournament but have been unconvincing in their group games so far. Never mind the score lines or margins with which they won their games, none of these four teams has shown enough to guarantee that they could win it all.
But I have a theory; and this is it – Can it be possible that these four teams have been playing down to the level of their opponents and we will see their true potential when they step out to compete against each other? I certainly hope so for the sake of African basketball.
I will do my part as promised, and present to you an analysis similar to what I would prepare if I was an adviser or backroom staff on each of the four teams. That means you will be reading what should have been four different reports/analysis intended for four different teams, but all combined into one lengthy post in this case. At the end, I will give you my prediction of who will win each matchup. Please find below my humble opinion.
FOR: Championship savvy, they simply know how to win and triumph over adversity. They have probably the best-balanced roster in the tournament, with a combination of great perimeter shooting, competent wingmen, and an adequate interior or post game. To put names to this description, they have Carlos Morais, reigning MVP of Afrobasket and a pure scorer who can hurt you from beyond the arc, has a mid-range game and is strong enough to take you to the basket. Plus he can create his own shot. Then you have wily Armando Costa, the point guard who has conducted the winning Angolan ‘orchestra’ for several years now after spending valuable time under the wings of the legendary Miguel Lutonda (himself a multiple MVP). Even though there are quicker guards and several who can shoot better, Costa’s court vision and point guard instincts are nearly unmatched in this tournament. Then there is Leonel Paolo reigning Angolan League MVP, and a slasher-par-excellence. At forward, they still have old-man-river Eduardo Mingas; who averaged 20.3PPG at the last Olympic Qualifying Tournament and 11.2 points at the last FIBA World Cup. To add to their inside presence, their World Cup star Yannick Moreira (6’11) is joining their Afrobasket campaign for the first time ever. At the last FIBA World Cup, Moreira was ranked 7th overall with 17.8PPG, 8th in rebounds with 8.2RPG, 6th in field goal shooting with 59.4%, 6th in double-doubles, and 3rd in efficiency rating with 20.2EffPG.
AGAINST: But they have not been able to put it all together so far this year. They have been barely average in many departments of the game thus far. And in spite of Moreira, they give away a lot of size to the Senegal team. It will be interesting to see how they plan to defend Dieng who is clearly better quality than anything they have to offer in the frontcourt. Also, they have a new coach who does not seem to fully understand the team yet as evidenced by his starting Ambrosio over Moreira, which led to the near-disastrous start which Angola had against Mozambique. Watching the body language of the players and other intangibles, I cannot but wonder if we will again see a coaching change in the Angolan team as happened midway through Afrobasket 2011.
Keys to the game:
Moreira must be in the starting five and energize the team from the beginning.
- Coach Lopez Suarez must come up with a pressure defense to force the pace of the Senegal game to be quicker. This game has to be turned into a track meet for Angola to win. If it is slowed to a predominantly half-court game, Senegal will win by at least ten points.
They have to take Dieng out of the equation and force someone else to beat them. Think zone, think double-teaming him.
Pay no attention to PG Dalmeida when he runs those ball screen and rolls. Morrocco made that mistake and it hurt them badly because they kept chasing a perfectly harmless player and allowing more dangerous people room to operate. So what if he turns the corner on the ball pick, what is he going to do? Shoot the ball? That would be a blessing because he has taken only 11 shots in 66.35 minutes and made only about 30% of them so far. Just go under the screen and meet him on the other side; you are not going to lose any game because Dalmeida was lighting it up from beyond the arc.
They must rebound effectively today and keep Senegal out of the paint somehow.
FOR: If only they weighed teams and based wins on the total per kilo weight of rosters, Senegal would win this Afrobasket by a mile. This team is big and dominant in the post. And it is not just about size, there is quality in that front line too. Gorgui Dieng is perhaps the most dreaded matchup in Afrobasket 2015; no other forward even comes remotely close. Dieng started 49 games and averaged 9.7PPG and 8.3RPG for the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves. At the last World Cup, Dieng was ranked 3rd overall in rebounds with 10.7RPG, 7th in blocked shots with 1.5BPG, 6th in steals with 1.8SPG, 1stin minutes played with 36.3MPG, 3rd in double-doubles, 6th in efficiency rating with 19.5 EffPG, in addition to battling the world’s best bigs and getting 16PPG. No other player in Afrobasket comes with credentials comparable to Dieng. In the face of the awesomeness of Dieng, please forgive me if I do not dwell much on the abilities of Mohammed Faye, Maleye Ndoye, and Antoine Mendy. At 6’9, 6’8 and 6’6 respectively and an ability to play 2,3,and4, these are some of the match up difficulties that Senegal can bring to the table anytime it chooses. Senegal also seems to understand its strengths well, and plays a very deliberate, almost boring half-court style of basketball. But it is very effective, similar to what the NBA Grizzlies do. You don’t want Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph running up and down the court trying to fill lanes for fast breaks, do you? Not when you can slow the game down and exploit their interior overpowering strengths in a half-court set.
AGAINST: Slow, plodding, boring, hard-to-stay-awake-and-watch style of basketball. The Achilles heel for Senegal has always been point guard play and they do not appear to have quite solved that riddle yet. Dalmeida who spends nearly the entire game running their team at point guard, is a great facilitator but seemingly poor finisher. With an impotent point guard at this level, it is only a matter of time before teams key into that and take away everything except your weak-shooting point guard. Also, Senegal relies too heavily on the offense of Dieng and have not really shown that they have a contingency plan for when he struggles. You will recall that the team struggled throughout the first half of the Morrocco game when Dieng had only five points. Even in the last game, Mozambique would clearly have been in with a chance against Senegal if not for Dieng. To compound matters, something is going on with Mohammed Faye. His body language was not good when he left the last game, and he was conspicuously absent from the roster and the match venue during the Mozambique game.
Keys to the game:
- Slow this game down to a crawl. Have the Angolans yawning on the court with the slow pace of the game.
Occasionally, play Mohammed Faye (if available), Maleye Ndoye and Antoine Mendy together at the same time at 2, 3, and 4 to see if you can get the key Angolan guards matched up against them in the post. One good way to defend a great scorer is to make him defend too and get him off the court with foul trouble.
With their size and relative slower foot-speed, Senegal would have to sometimes explore their options at zone defence. That way, they can neutralize the ball handling ability, quickness and penetration of the Angolan team. Senegal can pull it off with their length, plus remember that the Angolan team has not shown a blistering performance from long range as they have so far hit only about 30% from beyond the arc.
Long shots result in long rebounds. And smaller aggressive bodies thrive on coming out of nowhere to grab those long rebounds. Senegal must pay particular attention to the boards against Angola, for this reason.
FOR: One of the most athletic and better shooting teams in the tournament. With this team, Nigeria finally presents a roster at Afrobasket, which is fairly consistent. That is because this team is exactly the same as the 2013 team (except for two players Michael Gbinije and Olaseni Lawal). Michael Umeh is also a carryover of this team from Afrobasket 2011 when the roster rebuilding of this current team started. But while the two rosters appear similar in personnel, they differ significantly in style of play and structure. Perhaps the most glaring difference in this 2015 team is the abundance of perimeter shooters. Yes, Oguchi and Ogide were also on the 2013 team but they could not make meaningful contributions because of ineligibility and injuries. And a third shooter on that team, Richard Oruche was also lost to injury. So the great news is that this new team is significantly better than the 2013 team because it has its perimeter game intact and will not need to improvise and shuffle the cards trying to find new perimeter offense solutions with each passing game. And the team has added a very important piece over last Afrobasket’s team, Michael Umeh. He brings that scoring ability at point guard that the last team did not have, and which made them vulnerable to some defensive situations like zones. Now the team can shoot better and take better advantage of ball screens because they have a point guard who can score. The team has very mobile forwards like the Aminus, Ogide and Olaseni Lawal, who have adequate ball handling, thrive in transition and can play facing the basket. The team’s 3-point shooting percentage has improved to 44% (well above the tournament average of about 35%), boosted by Oguchi’s 57.1%, Umeh’s 67.6%, and Okoye’s 50% in the Ugandan game.
AGAINST: The team has not yet showed that it has any competent dominant player in the post, compared to other contenders. With the loss of Ike Diogu, and no Gani Lawal to step in, there is no beast inside to collapse the opponent’s defense. Too late now, but when constructing the roster, Nigeria should have included two back-to-the-basket-type post players and not just Diogu. And the team has no rim-protector to deter drives to the basket and interior play when Nigeria defends. It also allows opponents to get post position too easily. Another possible deficiency is that both our point guards do not appear to have the blazing speed of Angolan or Morroccan guards who can push the ball in transition, take opponents off the dribble, penetrate and pass to shooters or inside bigs. To bring the example closer to home, this is not a Dagunduro or Tony Skinn led quick-PG type offense. Consequently, with no inside dominance and no penetrating guard play, the half-court offense seems to settle into a semblance of weaves and ball-screens out on the perimeter, and isolation plays. That is adequate in certain situations (as has indeed happened in Nigeria’s first two games), but may be more difficult when they face opponents who can defend the dribble better, or switch those screens to take away open looks. Another dilemma on this team is how to manage the rotation to maximize the depth of perimeter shooters that Nigeria has. Nigeria appears to be playing what appears to be a standard layout of two forwards, one wing and two guards. For example, this usually puts Umeh at point, Oguchi at 2, Al Farouq at 3 and two forwards (who do not really play in the post) in. However the small forwards or wings have not shown great shooting ability from the perimeter. This layout has only worked because the teams Nigeria has played so far are defending Aminu (and Nigeria’s other swingmen) for the shot and giving them driving lanes in the process. What remains to be seen is how effective Nigeria can be when opponents start backing off the swing position and letting Aminu, Olasewere and Okoye have the shot, rather than allowing them to dribble penetrate. In case they cannot make those shots with consistency, that would leave only the forwards, one shooting guard and the point guard as shooters. The scenario worsens considerably when Ben Uzoh is at point, which would leave really only the 2 guard and a forward as the only viable perimeter threat. That is one of the reasons why Nigeria’s ‘second unit’ sometimes struggles to score.
Keys to the game:
- With this particular Nigerian team, perimeter shooting appears to be the weapon of choice. If that is the case, then they have to consider playing ‘small ball’ a few times and play Al Farouq as a power forward, which gives them a chance to add one extra shooter on the perimeter and avoid the problem described earlier. Against Tunisia, Al Farouq would not be seriously under-sized to defend the post, but even that can be covered up with post traps if found necessary.
Still on trying to maximize the strength of the Nigerian team, they have to develop a post presence over the next few games as a matter of urgency. And there is no better time to start than the Tunisian game. Any of Olasewere, Ogide or Alade Aminu should be able to do this against Tunisia, even if the player is a mere decoy and they throw the ball in to him fully expecting to get it back. Tunisia must feel some pressure to defend inside, and it is not a bad idea to attack Mejri early. Alternatively, we can post El Mabrouk, Obada, and Knioua with our bigger guards and have shooting forwards Alade Aminu and Ogide step out to knock down the resultant jump shots.
- Most of Nigeria’s points appear to be from coming down court and launching shots (which fortunately have mostly gone in thus far). But there is a popular saying that if you live by the gun, then you will die by the gun. What happens when Nigeria is not red hot from the perimeter as is occasionally possible to happen at later stages when legs tire? I have not seen much of a structured half-court offense but I hope they have something in their back pocket because they will definitely need it by the quarter and semi final stages (if not against Tunisia), when better defense slows teams down and neutralizes individual skills.
Against Tunisia, they should make Mejri defend the perimeter ball screen. He hates stepping out of the key area and the shot will usually be available on the other side of the screen. But this has to be run with a guard who can shoot the ball. – Without a deliberate half court structure like Angola or Senegal, Nigeria may need to turn to its defense to force turnovers and trigger its transition for easy fast break points. I have only seen a soft three-quarter-court press that was obviously designed to slow the ball rather than force turnovers. However the team may already have something more aggressive up its sleeve to quicken the pace when they face those teams that want to slow down the game deliberately. Kechrid is gone and the remaining Tunisian guards are particularly nervous of ball pressure. Sustained full court pressure will make them ripe for the plucking by the 3rd or 4th quarter.
- Nigeria must try its best to turn the Tunisian game into a track meet. The pace must put a lot of pressure on the rotation of the Tunisians. The deeper Tunisia is forced to go into their rotation, the better for Nigeria. And the pace must be nearly frenetic to the extent that it does not allow Mejri to enforce his will on the game.
Take care of the Boards. Tunisia will shoot a lot and Nigeria has to box out a lot more effectively than they have done so far to stop Tunisia from getting second and third shots.
Don’t underestimate Tunisia just because they have had two bad games in a row.
FOR: Home court advantage (whatever that means now in today’s basketball). They have perhaps the best rim protector at this tournament, in Salah Mejri. They have one of the better scorers in Makram Ben Romdhane who at 6’9 can play multiple positions. They have players like Mohammed Hadidane who at 6’9 can play everything from lumbering 2 to stretch 4. They just acquired a naturalized American Michael Roll who is supposed to be worth about 20PPG to them. Amine Rzig, their experienced 6’6 guard is still scoring well for them. They have the longest tenured African national team coach who practically grew with this team since their youth days. The bulk of the players have been together as a team since forever, so they have great chemistry and understanding.
AGAINST: So why is Tunisia playing such awful basketball? And at home too, for that matter. Their 3-point shooting deteriorated from a poor 26.1% in their first game to a miserable 14.8% in the second game. They could only manage one more rebound against CAF (43 to 42 rebounds) in spite of a huge size advantage. They have been out-hustled in both games they have played. They lack intensity and the only people playing with their former passion are Rzig and Ben Romdhane. The rest seem to be just coasting along, too cool to be bothered. Their egos have gotten much bigger than their game. Salah Mejri has been playing outside his skill set, shooting threes and dribbling the ball, resulting in missed 3-pointers and turnovers. He is demanding a much bigger role than his abilities can handle, and Coach Tatli uncharacteristically does not rein him in with his customary firmness. One of the major reasons for Tunisia’s success in the past was the firm control that Coach Adel Tlatli had on this team. He had them by the scruff of the neck and forced them to play a style which best suited their abilities. Now it seems that they are out of control as you see Mejri shooting fade-away threes (all air-balls by the way). The integration of Michael Roll has been a bit destabilizing too because he takes away minutes from Amine Rzig who has been this team’s leader for a long while. To worsen matters, Roll has not come ‘as advertised’. He has shot poorly and defended worse.
Keys to the game:
- Tunisia must tell themselves that lightening never strikes thrice in the same spot…..that good teams never have three bad games in a row. The players need to have a positive mental attitude that it is all about to turn around in their favor. Confidence is everything to a team that relies on shooting and scoring to win games.
Find a way to give Rzig more minutes. He is averaging 9PPG in 14 minutes, while Roll is averaging 8.5PPG in 28 minutes, which doubles Rzig’s minutes per game.
The guards Abada, Knioua, Seyeh and El Mabrouk have all been rather unproductive. Find a way to restore their confidence or give their minutes to Rzig and Roll playing together at the same time.
Control Mejri and let him know the Dallas Mavericks did not sign him for his offense, and he has nothing to prove in that regard.
Exploit the mismatches that the two 6’9 players Hadidane and Ben Romdhane will give the team if played together at the same time.
Avoid turnovers so that you don’t inadvertently fuel the Nigerian high-octane, fast break offense.
Switch the perimeter screens and go under the screens if it is Uzoh at point. – Know your opponent. Don’t allow Aminu, Olasewere, Uzoh and Okoye to penetrate. Give them the outside shots if you have to give up something. Defend the other guards for the shot.
And yes, I did promise to make a prediction on who the winners would be, didn’t I. Well, after a lot of careful consideration and crunching statistical information, I have come to the brilliant conclusion that DEFINITELY NONE OF THESE TWO GAMES WILL RESULT IN A DRAW!
Good luck to your team.
Images: International Basketball Federation