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Dave Smart, head coach of the Carleton Ravens' men's basketball team, hopes to lead the Canadian national team to victory at the Rio Olympics.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The men's basketball team at Carleton University has won 12 of the past 14 Canadian university championships. But the two games coach Dave Smart invokes most often are the ones when Carleton fell short.

In 2008, it was a double-overtime loss to Acadia University in the semi-finals. In 2010, again in the semis, the University of Saskatchewan upended Carleton. Smart watches tape of the Acadia loss monthly. Every few weeks, he reminds his players about the Saskatchewan loss.

"Whenever there's complacency," Smart said, "we bring those games up." He insists that if you believe in yourself, "then it's easy to talk about the failures."

The fiery 50-year-old is one of the best to have worked on the sidelines of a basketball court in Canada, and this summer brings one of the great challenges of his career. He will help coach the men's national team at its last chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.

Canada has to win a six-team tournament in early July that includes international powers France and Turkey.

Training camp begins on Friday.

Canada has its own recent difficult loss to confront.

Last September, the young team led by Andrew Wiggins and Cory Joseph had a ticket to Rio de Janeiro almost in hand at the FIBA Americas tournament.

It was a must-win game against Venezuela, which Canada had beaten by 20 points a week earlier. Canada had a seven-point lead with three minutes on the clock. It lost by one.

Whether Canada missed its likeliest shot to play in the Olympics is irrelevant to Smart. His goal is a bigger one.

"I want to medal at the Olympics," he said. "If we can't beat France at the qualifier, we probably aren't going to medal at the Olympics. But if we can beat France at the qualifier, we've got a legitimate shot at medalling at the Olympics."

Smart became a basketball coach at the age of 19. He had started playing only in high school and hurt his knee when he tried out for Carleton. He pivoted to coaching, first back at his high school. He became obsessed. In his mid-20s, he played at Queen's University, where he was a star point guard. At 33, he landed his job as head coach at Carleton after two years as an assistant there.

"I never really fell in love with basketball," Smart said of his early years. "I fell in love with coaching."

He won his first title at Carleton in his fourth season. Two undefeated seasons followed – and a winning streak of 87 games, nearly double the previous record. There was a third undefeated season in 2011-12. Over 16 winters, his regular season and playoff record is 394-35.

But Smart is quick to say he knows losing intimately. As his career got going, he coached more than 300 games a year, driving from gym to gym. He has slowed down, relatively, to about 100 games. His total tally stands at more than 5,000.

"Losing isn't a fear for me," he said. "I've done it enough."

Smart, beyond his Carleton win-loss record, is best known for his intensity, especially on the sidelines. "There are times he looks like he's losing his mind," said Kevin Churchill, a former player and former assistant coach.

What people don't see, Churchill said, is all the time Smart spends with players, working one on one, on the court or watching tape. "If you want to get better at something, you want to be around him," he said.

On the international stage, Smart's role is different.

He has been a national team assistant for most of the years since 2005. Under Jay Triano, who was hired back as head coach in 2012, he helps guide the defence. "A good portion is what we try to do at Carleton," he said.

The idea is an aggressive defence keyed on rebounds and forcing opponents, individually and as a group, into offensive situations where they are weak. For instance, driving to their weak hand, the left typically.

The information is gleaned from analytical scouting and hours of watching tape. "He works harder than anyone I've ever been around," Churchill said.

Smart has evolved with the national team.

A decade ago, he found it difficult at first to fit in as an assistant, a role he had rarely held. "I wasn't a very good assistant," he said. Since Triano returned in 2012, the team has aimed to build a "Canadian identity" in its playing style. The Smart defence is one pillar.

"I have a lot of respect for the way he coaches," said Triano, who coached Canada's last men's Olympic team in 2000 and was an assistant with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers until he reportedly was picked up last month by the Phoenix Suns as an associate head coach.

"He's one of the best coaches, not only in Canada. He's respected by NCAA coaches and NBA coaches who have worked with us."

Intensity is what makes Smart, said Dave DeAveiro, a long-time rival coach at McGill University and the University of Ottawa. "I don't think he's mellowed at all," DeAveiro said. "He's the same competitive guy he's always been. There's always something going on in Dave's mind, in a game, in a practice."

Rob Smart, Dave's nephew, has played for his uncle and worked as an assistant coach for him. This past winter, as interim head coach, Rob Smart led Carleton to another title, when Dave was on a sabbatical.

Battling complacency has been the long-standing mission. "We realized early on success could be the thing that kills you," Rob Smart said.

For Dave Smart, losing has always been an essential element of winning. "You figure it out as you go along," he said. "You make a lot of mistakes."

The national team's loss last September burns. Wiggins has called it the worst of his career.

This summer, Canada can achieve redemption at the last-shot Olympics qualifier.

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