SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - Both Cameroon and Nigeria will represent Africa at the upcoming FIBA Women Olympic Qualifying Tournament (WOQT) in Nantes, France, and they need to start scouting their Group Phase opponents sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.
The 12-team WOQT will run from 13-19 June, and the teams that finish in the top 5 will qualify for the Rio Olympics.
While Cameroon were drawn in Group B along with Turkey and Argentina, Nigeria will take on Belarus and Korea in Group C.
In the WOQT, the top two teams from each group advance to the Quarter-Finals where the first-place team of Group A plays the second-place team of Group B and vice-versa. The same applies to Groups C and D. The winners of the Quarter-Finals will qualify for the Olympics while the losers will play Classification Games until the fifth-place is determined. That team will earn the last Olympic spot.
Cameroon, who claimed a runners-up finish as hosts of the last African championship, will take on Argentina on Day 1 and, in order to keep their Olympic aspirations alive, they will need a stoic performance. Although the South Americans have become more competitive in recent years - they lost to Angola at 2008 WOQT - they remain within reach of the Central Africans.
The Nigerians - more than their fellow Africans - seem to be a lot more confident to reach the 2016 Games, and that optimism is expressed all over the social media by players, coaches, officials and commentators. And no one should really blame them. After all, Nigeria was one of the best teams at AfroBasket Women 2015, although they fell short to hosts Cameroon in a breathtaking Semi-Final.
Eventually, the Western Africans claimed a third-place finish by beating 2013 champions Angola.
From the African perspective, it would be fantastic to have more than one African team joining the continental champions Senegal at the 12-team Olympic tournament, but realistically speaking there is a lot of work to be done for both Cameroon and Nigeria.
The two neighbouring countries are on a mission to become the first African teams to advance from the WOQT, a competition mostly dominated by European teams. And judging by what I have heard from players and coaches they seem to know very little about their about their WOQT opponents, which is worrying.
Nigeria will open their WOQT campaign on 13 June, facing Belarus - the highest ranked team (10th) in the group - a side that runs most of its game around the veteran trio of Yelena Leuchanka - a 1.96m center with WNBA experience - sharpshooter Katsiaryna Snytsina and US-born point guard Lindsey Harding.
Talking to Nigeria head coach Scott Nnaji last week, he told me they will need to play a lot better than they did in Yaounde, Cameroon, and the only way to stop their more experienced opponents would be to instil an aggressive play style.
I agree with Nnaji, but I also feel that Nigeria will need a productive bench. Adaora Elonu, Ndidi Madu and Joyce Ekworomadu are excellent competitors, but the Western Africans will need long range shooters to prevail in the competition.
However, to me, Korea will be Nigeria's toughest opponent in the WOQT Group Phase. The Asians may not be a household name in the world basketball, but the progress they made in recent years is undeniable, and they don’t sit 12th in the FIBA World Ranking by accident.
They are currently experiencing the team rebuilding, and teenage Ji Su Park represents the new face of Korean women's basketball. Standing 1.97m tall, with an impressive footwork and ability to pass the ball, Park - who already has a vast international experience despite being just 17 years old - may give Nigeria some headache in the painted area.
But the Korean Basketball Federation President Yul Pang prefers to minimise Park's impact on the team.
"I believe Ji Su Park will be a key player someday soon in the future, but she is still a teenager and growing mentally and physically. I really don't want to give so much pressure to this kid," he told FIBA.com.
One thing that Pang is certain of though, is the team's chances of reaching the Olympics.
He said: "Our team was not really that good at the 2015 FIBA Asia Women’s Championship since our head coach promoted a change of generation, putting young players into the team and excluding some veterans. But our team is now in a better harmony. That is why I believe that our players will get us a ticket to Rio 2016."
Nnaji insists his team need to be a lot better and is looking to bringing fresh legs for the WOQT. The Cameroon's Basketball Federation announced the team's preparation will begin in April in Milan, Italy.