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 said. “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 honour 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.
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.”