The trajectory of Canada's women's basketball team is ascendant – and as the prospects rapidly improve, the squad plays crucial games at home this summer in July and August as it aims to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The team played at the 2012 Games in London, the first Olympics for Canada's women in a dozen years, and veterans led the team to a surprise eighth-place finish. Thereafter, the roster was overhauled as players retired and young talent took their place.
At the same time, a boost of funding from Own The Podium – about $1-million annually the past four years – has provided numerous additional resources off the court, starting with more staff to focus on video scouting, statistical analytics and players' health. One example: The team now has a "basketball scientist" who specializes in physiology.
Results have already emerged. Canada finished fifth at the basketball world championship last year. This year's key tournament is FIBA Americas in August in Edmonton, where the women's team is headquartered. The winner qualifies for Rio. An important warm-up comes in July in Toronto at the Pan Am Games, where Canada is in a group with rival Cuba.
Cuba defeated Canada in the finals of the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament, and again in exhibition play last summer. Canada is ranked No. 10 in the world and Cuba is No. 13. If Canada doesn't make it in Edmonton, there is one final, challenging Rio qualifying tournament in 2016.
"People are feeling pretty excited and pretty good about our chances," coach Lisa Thomaidis said in an interview on Wednesday.
Canada Basketball operates with far less money than other countries, about $5-million annually, which is a fraction of the roughly $70-million countries such as Spain and France spend on their programs. Still, Thomaidis said the OTP money has quickly paid off. "We're cutting-edge," she said. "No one is going to be better prepared."
If the Canadian women qualify for Rio, it would be the first back-to-back Olympics for the team since 1996 and 2000.