Jay Triano experienced one of Canada’s greatest basketball moments. Now he believes the group of young players he’s guiding will make some history of their own.
Triano led the Canadian team that won the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton, shocking a mighty American squad that included Charles Barkley and Karl Malone in the semi-finals before toppling Yugoslavia in the gold-medal game.
Three decades later, the 54-year-old is on the bench as Canada’s men’s head coach at the 27th Universiade in Kazan, Russia.
“Thirty years ago, 15 of these Games ago,” Triano said, recalling Canada’s brilliant performance in 1983.
“Wow 30 years, don’t remind me. . .” he added, laughing.
The Canadians are 2-0 at these Games and tied with the United States and Australia atop Pool C, after opening with an 84-69 victory over Sweden and then clobbering the United Arab Emirates 137-43.
Canada is fielding a development team that includes 6-foot-9 forward Kyle Wiltjer who helped the Kentucky Wildcats capture the NCAA title in his freshman year in 2012, Kevin Pangos, a 6-foot-1 guard at Gonzaga, and brothers Philip and Thomas Scrubb, who’ve helped Carleton win the Canadian university title in all three of their seasons in Ottawa.
“We’ve got so many good young players in our country, and they want to be here, they want to be competing for Canada, and that’s what makes this fun,” Triano said. “They elected to not go to opening ceremonies, for example, because we had a game the next day. They’re very driven and they’re very dedicated to playing for their country and doing well.
“This is the type of thing we want, we want our young players to feel that way and we want them to grow in the program with those same beliefs.”
Triano, who’s in his second stint as Canada’s head coach — his first was 1998 to 2005 — said it’s key he got involved with the young players from the outset.
“I think it’s important with the progression that we’re trying to make with them and their movement up to the national team,” Triano said after practice in Kazan ahead of Wednesday’s game versus Australia. “I think it’s good for me to get a good idea of what they can do and where they might fit in with our program in the future, and it’s good for me to get back coaching at the international game again. They get to understand me, I get to understand them.
“We think in the next four to six or eight years, Canada is going to be very prominent on the international basketball scene and a lot of these players are going to be part of that.”
The squad is perfect so far this summer, going 9-0 at a Four Nations tournament in China that included three victories over the U.S. The trip to China was the perfect chance for Triano, who was rehired as Canada’s head coach last summer, to get to know the young players.
“The conditions were not great in China, and it was great to kind of bond with them when we went through a tough time over there, and to be successful doing it I think really helped us a lot,” he said.
Tough times included four-hour bus rides to and from games, sometimes with a flight tacked on.
“And sometimes the food was difficult to eat in some of the smaller cities we were in, we weren’t sure what we were eating,” Triano said. “It was just the hardships of going through the difficult things around the game, and trying to be focused on the game. It was a challenge, I was really pleased with how they adapted, how they accepted the challenge.
“Those types of things help make you mentally tough, and that’s part of international games.”
Canada’s victory in 1983 was the team’s only Universiade gold in basketball, although Triano and his team went on to win bronze two years later. In all, Canada has won one gold, four silver and four bronze in basketball.
“I joke with the players, I played in four World University Games (1979, ‘81, ‘83 and ‘85) and they’re every two years, so I was a student for eight years,” Triano said laughing.
Triano was part of a senior squad coached by the late Jack Donohue that represented Canada back then. Now, Canada’s development team will have played 17 international games by the time the Universiade ends — all great experience for the country’s future stars.
“We can’t duplicate living in a village and the international games in tournaments like this,” Triano said. “I think it’s great we’re here competing like we are, and I’m happy to be back. . . it’s all good.”
The tournament will get significantly more difficult over the next three days as Canada battles Australia on Wednesday, the Czech Republic on Thursday, and the Americans on Friday. Only two teams from each pool advance to the quarter-finals.
“One thing about these Games, they sometimes cater to the home team having an easier draw,” Triano said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us for the rest of this week. But that’s why we’re doing this, we want the challenge, and we want to play the best teams in the world. We’re going to have two of the best up against us in the next few days, so it’s a great challenge for the guys.”
The quarter-final and consolation round games are Sunday, with the medal games scheduled for next Tuesday.
The Canadians won silver at the Games two years ago in Shenzhen, China.
Triano will then gather the senior men’s squad together in Toronto on Aug. 1 to begin camp ahead of the FIBA Americas tournament in the fall — the qualifier for the 2014 world championships.
A few of the development players will likely be invited to the senior camp, Triano said. One notable absence from that camp will be high school star Andrew Wiggins, who’s attending the University of Kansas in the fall.
“I think this year is the year we’re going to just him go to school and play for that one year,” Triano said. “Hopefully he’ll be in the pool next year after he gets drafted.”