THE 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifiers first round will be a tough test for the Rwanda men’s team. The matches will be played from February 23-25 in Bamako, Mali.
Rwanda is in a group of heavyweights, Nigeria, Mali, and archrivals Uganda. Rwanda will be making the first appearance since they claimed a 1-2 mark at last year’s FIBA Afrobasket.
The top-three teams of the four qualifying groups will advance to the 12-team second-round and, Rwanda will compete for one of the five tickets on offer for African nations to the 32-team FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China.
Can head coach Moise Mutokambali secure one of the five tickets? How far can his men go? Is Rwanda destined to defy the odds? Saturday Sports’ reporter Jejje Muhinde takes a look at Rwanda’s chances.
The opener against Mali will be a close encounter. Well, for Mali they will seek to make the most of their experience and home advantage.
Mali's Ibrahim Djambo will be the talent to watch by Mutokambali’s side, the 25-year-old finished with a game-high 24 points in a 90-67 defeat to then-African champions Nigeria at FIBA AfroBasket 2017.
As hosts of Group B's first-leg, Mali will not take anything for granted. They signed Frenchman Remi Giuitta as the team's head coach.
Nigeria’s D’ Tigers will be a tough team to beat, Mutokambali acknowledges, the West Africans have cemented their continental status as the heavyweights taking the latest rankings into consideration.
Globally they are placed 32nd, while Rwanda is placed at 90th spot; they reached the finals and were dethroned by Tunisia as Africa Champions. If coach Mutokambali is to upset Nigeria, then his side will have to deal with the big names like Ike Diogu, Ikechukwu Nwamu and Bryant Mbamalu who are notorious for their three-pointer prowess.
The 34-year-old power forward Diogu - a three-time FIBA AfroBasket participant and last year’s MVP- has become an all-around for Nigeria averaging team-highs 22 points and eight rebounds per game according to FIBA statistics. Diogu has been the heart and soul of the Nigerian team; after all, he is the only 'survivor' from the 2015 Nigeria winning team.
The rivalry between the two East African states will be tense, Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup, but only got a seat at African basketball’s high table in 2015 when they made their debut at Afro basketball.
Their progress ever since has been loud and they can no longer be taken for granted as they play their first leg against Rwanda on February 25.
The City Oilers, shooting guard Robinson Odoch Opong will be the key player to watch out for. The 28-year-old lethal scorer made his debut for the national side last September at FIBA AfroBasket 2017. Opong averaged 16 points per game at last month's African Champions Cup and 15.3 points per game at AfroBasket 2017.
Rwanda will largely depend on Aristide Mugabe, Kami Kabange, Hamza Ruhezamihigo and Kenneth Gasana.
Gasana, a shooting guard who made his debut for Rwanda at FIBA AfroBasket in 2009, recently said that they expect nothing less of high-level basketball.
“Mali will be very tough, especially with the country behind them for each game. There will be no surprises with Uganda as they have been good rivals for some time now. I expect our guys to be locked in and prepared for the challenges in front of us," Gasana explained.
Rwanda may not rank among the favourites to secure one of the five tickets for African countries for the 32-team FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China, but Gasana, who currently plays for Moroccan side Maghreb de Fes (MAS), insists that "the competition [African Qualifiers] can be a great platform for the growth of basketball in Rwanda, especially with the youth."
Mutokambali will name the final 12-team squad on February 18 that will participate in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifiers first round. The team is supposed to travel on February 20.
Mutokambali’s side will take on Mali on 23 before clashing with Nigeria on February 24 while their final game will be against Uganda on February 25.
The top three teams from each group will advance to the second round, where the 12 qualified teams are divided in two groups (E and F) of 6 teams each.
The first legs of the second-round tournament take place during the fourth window (Sept. 10-18), with the return legs to follow during the fifth window (Nov. 26-Dec. 4) and the sixth window (Feb. 20-28, 2019).
The top two teams from Groups E and F and the best third-ranked team will secure their tickets for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. The first-ever 32-team edition of FIBA’s flagship competition will take place from August 31-September 15, 2019 in China.