SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - Thirty-Six games into the FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2017, and we have a champion in waiting.
Why have I chosen Angola, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal for the title race?
The Nigerians remain undefeated in three games, have shared the ball better than any other team with 23 assists per game; they defended the paint better than most with a tournament-high five swats per content, but what really sets Sam Vicent's team apart is their defensive aggression.
In their latest outing, Nigeria stopped a sensational Egyptian team, forcing them to turn the ball a staggering 30 times while capitalizing from it with 36 points. In the process, they outscored the North Africans 106-72.
Meanwhile, reigning champions Senegal have shot a tournament-best 47 percent from the field, they trail Nigeria by two assists per game and have won all their three games so far. An experienced team with eight African champions on their roster, as well as a two-time African Champion coach, Senegal are on a mission in Bamako.
So, if the numbers are anything to go by, then Nigeria and Senegal - who coincidently are set to close out their Group B campaign facing each other on Wednesday, August 23 - could be the tournament's finalists, and as a result Africa's representative at 2018 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Spain.
And, I feel this is Nigeria's turn.
How about Angola and Mali? You might ask.
Well, in all honesty, I can't predict those two teams progressing beyond the Semi-Finals.
Angola, who average a tournament-high 42.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and currently top Group A with three wins in as many games, have shown some sloppy and alarming plays against Tunisia, suggesting that they might struggle against top teams like Nigeria or Senegal.
Mali, meanwhile, lead the tournament with an impressive 55 rebounds per game, however, they urgently need to step up their perimeter defense, which allowed Angola to make eleven three-pointers, including this Italee Luca's buzzer beater.
And, that's the reason why former South Africa head coach Kimathi Toboti disagrees. He picks Mozambique over Mali to reach the last four.
"Mali’s performance against Angola is the reason why I don't have them doing well. When facing a good defensive team, they struggle," he told me via email.
Unless something extraordinary happens, then, a team not mentioned above would lift the most important trophy of FIBA Africa women's basketball event on Sunday, August 27 in Bamako, Mali.
(I wrote this column, on Monday, August 21, while the 12 national teams were enjoying a deserving day of rest after playing three consecutive Group Phase games each. The FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2017 action resumes on Tuesday).
By Julio Chitunda for FIBA.com