FIBA World Cup: Nigeria got what they came for, a ticket to Tokyo

There were slightly muted celebrations as Nigeria ended their FIBA World Cup with one of their objectives accomplished: to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. 

This accomplishment has, however, failed to mask the disappointment of falling short of their other objective: making it past the group phase, to at least the quarter finals. 

Stacked with NBA talent and experience, this Nigeria team went to China with expectations of at least a top eight finish, but two quick losses against Russia and Argentina immediately ended all such hopes. 

They did recover to beat Korea and then win two more games - against fellow Africans Cote d'Ivoire and then hosts China - to secure their Olympic place, but disappointment lingers as both the Russia and Argentina games were well within reach. 

D'Tigers matched Russia shot for shot in their opening encounter, block for block, and ended the third quarter tied 58-58 with the Europeans. But after they raced into a 7-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Nigerians proceeded to blow it in the final three minutes, losing by five. 

Further second half self-combustion was to cost them against Argentina in their second game, where they lost both the third and fourth quarters largely through some inefficient shooting.

All of which left FIBA Africa columnist Julio Chitunda voicing the fans' frustrations: "Since Day 1 of their training camp in Atlanta and because of the talented roster they brought to China, I always believed this could be the year that an African team would reach the quarter-Finals of the World Cup, but things didn't go their way.

"Hopefully, they can do better in Tokyo next year. The talent is there, I just don't understand what is missing. With all due respect to Argentina and Russia, I feel that these two teams who beat Nigeria in the Group Phase were in Nigeria's reach. Maybe they lacked a bit more team effort. I don't know."

Part of the problem could have been down to D'Tigers' heavy dependence on isolation plays and not enough pick and roll offense. Not only did they not employ the pick and roll enough, they also failed to guard efficiently against it. 

There were also some concerns about player management. Mike Eric and Ekpe Udoh were barely utilized in those first two games, but came up big in the last three. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that. 
 D'Tigers' shooting also cost them in China.

They shot 40.5% in the opening two games, but then proceeded to shoot 50.3% in the final three games, outscoring the opposition by a combined 72 points. By contrast, they lost to Russia and Argentina by just a combined 18 points. 

Those numbers showed that the Nigerians are capable of competing with the best in the world, making their failure to get out of their group even more jaw-clinchingly frustrating.

Nigeria coach Alex Nwora reflected: "I know that we have the experience, the skill set and talent to compete with anybody. We have a lot of talents on the team.

"Looking at the 12 guys on the roster, they can all play. One day, some guys will step up while on some other days, it will be different set of players. We are running a system that will allow everybody to be efficient." 

He is not far wrong, but the Nigerians will need to make serious adjustments when they get to Tokyo next year, instead of relying on raw talent.

Captain Ike Diogu, at 36, might not be there when they go to Japan, but the team will still have more than enough experience to carry them through, with the likes of Al-Farouk Aminu and Chimezie Metu on hand.

And youngsters Josh Okogie and Jordan Nwora provide youthful lungs and talent, while there is also the possibility that Orlando Magic's Victor Oladipo could be enticed to pull on the green colors of D'Tigers.

If that happens, it is a singular addition that could immediately elevate Nigeria to genuine medal contenders.