D'Tigers Won't Be Underdogs


Tony Skinn has been here before.He’s been on a team that’s made headlines by simply punching a ticket into a tournament.

Skinn made a name for himself as the starting point guard on the George Mason squad that reached the Final Four in 2006. The Patriots squeaked their way into the NCAA tournament that season with a controversial at-large bid before playing the role of David to the Goliaths of Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut.

Skinn finds himself in a strikingly similar situation as a member of the Nigerian national team. The Nigerians, ranked No. 21 in the world, claimed the final Olympic berth with a win over the John Calipari-coached Dominican Republic while finishing second in the FIBA Qualifying Tournament. Before that, Nigeria erased a 12-point halftime deficit and shocked heavily-favored Greece in an 80-79 stunner in the quarterfinals. Nigeria also beat Lithuania, the world’s fifth-best team, in the tournament.

And yet Skinn knows getting to London is only half the battle.

“I try not to mention the Final Four run too much with the guys,” Skinn told USA Today. “But it is just like that with this team. A lot of people didn’t expect us to be here. But we’re not finished, not yet. We have a constant chip on our shoulder.”

Skinn isn’t the only Nigerian player with a dazzling college résumé. A majority of the roster features players who played Division I college basketball in the U.S. The team, piloted by coach Ayo Bakare of Nigeria, has had recent success in international play due to an orchestrated recruitment of American college and professional players of Nigerian descent. There are only three Nigerian-born players on the 12-man roster; the others have dual citizenship through their parents. The team even trained in the U.S.

“Playing college ball in the States helped us understand each other a little better from a basketball chemistry standpoint,” said Chamberlain “Champ” Oguchi, a three-point marksman who played at Oregon and Illinois State. “It helps because we had similar styles of coaching. We meshed and it seemed like we just clicked together.

“This is the best team chemistry I’ve seen on this team and I’ve been playing on (the Nigerian) team since I was 19 years old. Nobody is out there for individual glory. That’s what makes this so special. We’re focused on one goal, and that’s winning. I consider myself a winner and it’s been an honor to play with a group of guys who want to win just as bad.”

Nigeria features NBA talent on its roster with New Orleans Hornets forward Al-Farouq Aminu and former NBA lottery pick Ike Diogu. Then there’s a long list of former college standouts with professional playing experience overseas to fill out the roster.

“The key with Nigeria and the reason they had success in the qualifying tournament is that they play very, very hard and with passion and energy on defense,” ESPN FIBA analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “You look at them, and Diogu is an NBA-level player. Al-Farouq Aminu is certainly an NBA player. They play around the basis of toughness and team chemistry. The Nigerian players I’ve been around, they have a fierceness about them.”

Diogu, an Arizona State product who’s played several seasons in the NBA and last season in the Chinese Basketball Association, is competing on the Nigerian national team for the first time. He had to wait for FIBA to clear him since he played previously for the U.S. Diogu said his relationship with his teammates has been “unbelievable” and he feels the Nigerian team is “not respected enough.”

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“I think we’re capable of beating top-ranked teams, we’ve proven that,” he said. “We just have to stick to our style of basketball. We’re athletic and we need to rebound. We play well together on both ends. Most of all, we’re battle-tested.

“We’re trying to shock the world,” Diogu added. “We’re trying to put Nigerian basketball on the map.”

For the first time in Olympic history, two African teams will be among the 12 teams competing in the Games. Nigeria will play its Olympic opener on Sunday against the African nation, Tunisia.

“This is a big moment for African basketball,” Fraschilla said.

When the Nigerians tip off play Sunday, they’ll be immediate underdogs. Nigeria are the third-lowest ranked squad in the entire field, ahead of only Tunisia (No. 32) and hosts Britain (No. 43). Nigeria are in Group A, the same pool as the U.S. and Argentina.

When asked about guarding the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, Oguchi responded jokingly, “They’ll have to match up with me.”

“I respect those guys, I admire them. Before and after the game, I’ll be honored. But on the court, they’re my enemy,” said Oguchi, noting that his teammates won’t be waiting in line for autographs.

Now staying in the Olympic Village, it’s difficult for the Nigerian players to not just shower themselves in the moment. Still, they know they need to take the same mentality as an at-large mid-major going up against a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.

“I can’t wrap my head around the idea of being an Olympian,” Oguchi said. “There are thousands of athletes in the world, and this is truly a genuine opportunity. Words can’t describe the feeling. But now we’re doing everything to prepare mentally and physically for the battles that lie ahead.

“It has that Cinderella feel of the NCAA tournament, but at the same time, we know we can take down the power houses of the world. We’re not here to just compete, we’re here to get a medal.”

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