Al Horford: Canada the team to beat in Olympic qualifying

Al Horford
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At this summer’s FIBA Americas, a nation that has not reached an Olympic men’s basketball tournament in more than a decade will almost surely qualify for Rio 2016.

The two finalists at FIBA Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, will be part of a 12-team 2016 Olympic field.

The U.S. clinched a spot in the Rio Olympics by winning the 2014 World Cup and does not have to play at FIBA Americas.

Brazil, as host nation, is likely to earn automatic entry into the Olympic tournament, too, though that decision hasn’t been made yet.

That leaves Argentina as the only other nation in the Americas to have qualified for either of the last two Olympics. But even if Argentina wins FIBA Americas in September, the other finalist would also go to Rio.

That’s a big opportunity for Puerto Rico (last in the Olympics in 2004), Canada (last in the Olympics in 2000), Mexico (last in the Olympics in 1976) and the Dominican Republic, which has never been to the Games and lost three winner-goes-to-London contests in 2012 Olympic qualifying.

Al Horford led the Dominican Republic to the semifinals of the 2011 FIBA Americas against Brazil, with the winner clinching an Olympic berth. Brazil prevailed, 83-76.

Horford and the Dominican Republic then went to a last-chance global Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela, less than a month before the London Games. The top three nations there clinched Olympic berths.

The Dominican Republic, then with John Calipari coaching, lost its semifinal to Lithuania and its third-place game to Nigeria.

“We were close, we won a couple good games there, but we couldn’t get to that next level,” Horford said while in New York for the NBA All-Star Game last week. “It’s a great opportunity, what’s ahead.”

Horford hasn’t yet committed to playing in this year’s FIBA Americas, choosing to focus on his Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks’ season for now. The NBA Finals are in June. FIBA Americas starts Aug. 25 and ends Sept. 6. The Hawks’ preseason training camp began on Sept. 30 last year.

The Dominican Republic has never qualified for an Olympic men’s basketball tournament, but the hopes are high this time around. Not only is the qualifying path easier, but the team may also be stronger.

Without Horford, the Dominican Republic was one of five Americas nations to reach the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup (U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Mexico).

Its World Cup roster included recognizable college basketball names from the previous decade — Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa (Louisville) and Eloy Vargas (Kentucky). It did not include NBA veteran Charlie Villanueva, who played at the 2011 FIBA Americas with Horford.

Horford sees Canada as the team to beat at FIBA Americas, though.

“They should definitely be, probably, the favorite, honestly,” Horford said last week.

Canada, under the tutelage of general manager Steve Nash, could earn its first trip to the Olympics since 2000 (when Nash played).

Canada was sixth at each of the last two FIBA Americas, failing to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, but it has a wealth of young talent, including the last two No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft — Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins – as well as 2014 first-round picks Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis and NBA big men Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk.

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