DALLAS (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 African Qualifiers) - As Nigeria look to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China, team captain Ike Diogu reaffirmed his passion to play for his parents' country.
In his national team debut at the 2012 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Venezuela, Diogu lined up along some of Nigeria's finest players - including Al Farouq Aminu, Tony Skinn, Ade Dagunduro, and Chamberlain Oguchi, just to mention a few - as the team took the world by storm.
A FIBA AfroBasket 2015 title - although he sat out the entire tournament due to a leg injury suffered a few days before the start of the competition - and two consecutive Olympic appearances give Diogu a sense of worthiness.
However, there is still an accomplishment missing in his illustrious career: playing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, the sport's biggest stage.
In February, Nigeria will go up against Uganda, Mali, and Rwanda in Group B of the first round of the African Qualifiers. If they finish in the top three, they will advance to the 12-team second of the Qualifiers.
"As I've always stated, my passion is to continue to represent Nigeria for as long as I can. So I'm excited to be the captain and look forward to a very successful run," Diogu told FIBA.Basketball.
"The World Cup is a huge goal of ours. We have not played in one [since 2006]. So we want to make sure to put our best foot forward in the Qualifiers not take anything for granted at all. So It will be a challenge with the new rules but one we are up for."
Nigeria's recent ascent can't be explained without the impact of Diogu, who has led his country in scoring in four straight major international tournaments.
Two months ago, at FIBA AfroBasket 2017, he did a bit of everything for his team, leading all players in scoring with an average of 22.0 points per game and grabbing a team-best 8.7 rebounds.
Looking ahead of the Qualifiers, Diogu explained how and why Nigeria became Africa's highest ranked team.
"Nigeria has an amazing talent pool and since there are so many good players that's what makes it so tough to choose from. But when we finally kept a core group together and built the cohesion that you need, we were able to surprise people and will big games and I still think people have not seen Nigeria’s best team with its best players because that will be a very scary sight," he said.
Even former Nigeria's assistant coach John Bryant acknowledges Diogu's pivotal role.
After bringing together the best 24 teams from around the world at its last three editions, the FIBA Basketball World Cup will see the field increased to 32 in China, with five teams coming from Africa, compared to three previously. Diogu believes this could be a game-changer for African basketball.
"The game is growing, so FIBA wanted to have a true world tournament which I think is great and it’s amazing they are seeing Africa as a rising power I truly believe it’s only a matter of time before an African team is on the podium receiving a medal at one of the big tournaments."
What exactly has Diogu been up to since September?
"Since Afrobasket  I have been training hard waiting to sign somewhere to play, concentrating on NBA and China. So hopefully, something works out but also looking at other leagues I was happy to show that I, at 34, can still dominate at a high level."