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.

Three takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”

Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss

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One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“This wasn’t the skate that I wanted,” said Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen. The Virginia chalked up the flaws at least partially to putting more recent practice time into his short program, which he skated clean on Friday after errors in previous competitions.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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