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Canada Basketball held a press conference at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on August 23, 2012 to announce Jay Triano, here, as the new head coach for the men's basketball team. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Canada Basketball held a press conference at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on August 23, 2012 to announce Jay Triano, here, as the new head coach for the men's basketball team. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Canadian development squad

Triano’s long road to Olympics includes tough test in Russia Add to ...

Jay Triano, fists clenched, a familiar scowl imprinted on his face, paced the sideline, barking defensive instructions to a struggling Canadian team down eight points to Australia three minutes into the third quarter earlier this week at the 2013 World University Games.

But there was no yelling or histrionics – familiar to Canadian basketball fans from Triano’s three-year stint as head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors – only a carefully measured timeout followed by gentle encouragement. On cue, sharp-shooting Baylor guard Brady Heslip hit back-to-back three-pointers, catapulting Canada back into the game.

As the newly rehired senior men’s national team coach, Triano acknowledged, pointedly, after the Canadians clawed back for a 92-83 win, that he doesn’t have to be in Russia. He could, perhaps should, be at home preparing for the start of training camp on Aug. 1.

But with Canadian basketball on an upswing and stuffed with young talent, Triano believes a large chunk of its bright future is currently here, at the Universiade.

“I want the players to get to know me and I want to get a chance to know the players,” the 54-year-old said. “I could have had other coaches come here and [lead the team]. But for me to have a stamp on how we’re going to play, and how we think we have to play in the future, it’s better for me to be here.”

Led by Heslip and Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos, Canada sits 4-0 in its group heading into a tough final first-round match Friday, against the United States (3-1). The top two teams in the group move on to the quarter-finals.

Triano, who starred for Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the 1983 Universiade, said he told Canada Basketball president Wayne Parrish and senior men’s general manager Steve Nash in April he wanted to lead the development squad, which is composed of 20- to 23-year-olds from CIS and U.S. NCAA schools.

“Steve and those guys, they were like, ‘You sure you want to do this?’” Triano recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘I do,’ because I think it’s important – we asked the players for a commitment [to Canadian basketball] and I want to be committed as well.”

With Canada currently in the throes of one of its worst runs on the international basketball stage, Triano, who is known for his easygoing, almost fatherly demeanour off the court, willfully accepts his development-oriented job description – which can only help him thrive as Canada looks to qualify for the 2016 Olympics at the FIBA Americas tournament less than two months from now.

In Kazan, Triano and his four-man staff live and eat with the team, running daily practices and conditioning sessions, steering clear of the casual, friendly competitiveness so common at the Universiade.

The stated goal is to win, but for better or worse Triano is sticking with a strict five-men-on, five-men-off rotation while ensuring all 12 players see court time every game.

“That’s the way to develop guys, making sure they get international experience,” said Heslip, Triano’s nephew, who is averaging a team-high 16.5 points in Kazan.

Under former senior team coach Leo Rautins (who ran the team from 2005-11), Canada failed to qualify for the Summer Olympics and earned a spot at the FIBA world championship just once: in 2010, finishing 22nd out of 24 teams. Triano fared only slightly better in his first coaching run from 1998 to 2005, but did lead Canada to seventh at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, its only appearance at the Games since 1988.

For Triano, summer with the development team – the same group went 9-0 during the Four Nations Tournament in China last month – is also about refamiliarizing himself with international competition, from in-game strategy, such as when to call timeouts, to life off the court.

“Our goal is to play in the Olympics, where we’re going to have to get used to living in a village,” said the Niagara Falls, Ont., native, who had a four-year assistant-ship with former USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski after he was replaced by Rautins.

“Hopefully, it becomes something where the distractions are not becoming a factor because we’ve been here before and we know what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, the players, many of whom are getting their first taste of international basketball, are trying to shrug off the pressure of playing for one of the key arbiters of who receives invites to the senior camp.

“He let us know early, just be yourself and play your game and as hard as possible,” New Mexico State guard Daniel Mullings said.

According to Triano, Nash – a 17-year NBA veteran and two-time league most valuable player – is keeping close tabs on their Universiade performance.

“He’s completely aware of who we have here and why we have them here, and he’ll be involved in the selection process for any of these guys that might get invited to our senior national team,” the coach said.

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