With the Basketball Africa League set to tip off on Sunday for its inaugural season, 2017 FIBA Africa Champions Cup winners AS Sale have been tipped as one of the favourites, but their coach is aiming lower.
Said El Bouzidi is uncertain that his Morocco-based team can win the NBA-affiliated event, and has set a more realistic goal of reaching the quarterfinals as success for his side, who not only won the African title in 2017, but made it all the way to the Final the next year.
“For me, with the problems that are being experienced in Moroccan basketball [the league was suspended for two years] and the departure of some key elements of the team I think we can make maybe the quarter-finals,” he told ESPN.
El Bouzidi’s pessimism is a marked departure from year ago, when the tournament was originally scheduled to take place before the coronavirus pandemic-induced suspension.
At the time, he was just as bullish as pundits about their chances of emerging champions, despite the departure of at least two key players.
One of those players was shooting guard Wayne Arnold, who played a pivotal role in their successful run at the national title. He left to join Egyptian side Zamalek, but the losses, at the time, did little to dampen their confidence.
“We lost some players. But we can’t hold on to that. Instead, we need to focus on our goals. We are out to win the trophy,” El Bouzidi said then.
A year later, that tune has changed. With just days to the start of their campaign, and the opening game against Cameroon’s FAP, El Bouzidi is playing down his team’s chances.
The coach also pointed to the long pause in competitive play: “The effect of the interruption has been negative, especially for AS Sale which is a team that plays more than 40 international matches but now finds itself without training, without competition.
“Yes, it is normal for people to see us as favourites, but what people don’t know is that the AS Sale team has aged and changed.”
Instead, Bouzidi is pointing in other directions for potential winners of the competition: “The best claim for the title in my opinion goes to US Monastir. Also, Zamalek, and then the Angolan club Petro from Luanda and the Nigerian club Rivers Hoopers.”
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El Bouzidi is not alone. Mohammed Sekkak, a now retired AS Sale player who remains part of the fabric off the club, is equally downbeat about their chances.
“It is the first time in a long time that I have doubts,” he told ESPN. “I trusted my team and it’s personnel. It is just that every other time before we were prepared and we were playing in a league that was functional.
“It is not as much the team as it is the other factors which may affect us. We played at the highest level and we reached the final twice in the last two editions and won once. So our odds are on our side and usually, we can compete with any team.”
Still, there is reason to trust in AS Sale’s ability to finish on top of the pile by the end of the two-week competition.
Formed in 1928, the seven-time Moroccan champions are one of the oldest basketball clubs on the continent, but for the majority of their existence, were content to make up the numbers in the league.
That was to change at the turn of the century when they became real challengers, and then champions.
Sekkak, who played in those earlier teams, says the turnaround was driven from within: “We were known for producing good players through the youth categories.
“A new generation of good and modern ex-players with young age and career people took over.
“Players who played with me and some younger ones decided the club should not just compete and stay in the middle of the pack, they wanted to lead the pack. So they hired the best players and they found great sponsors who bought into that philosophy.”
This injection of funds and expertise injected fresh impetus into the team and thus began their new found place as not just a national, but continental powerhouse.
To start with, AS Sale finished runners up four times; in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2009. They were finally crowned champions in 2010, a full 82 years after the club’s formation.
With the dam broken, the Corsairs went on to dominate the league, winning another six titles, including consecutive triumphs from 2015.
Having conquered the country, they then went on to do the same on the continent, winning the FIBA Africa Champions Cup in 2017 under El Bouzidi and finishing runners up in 2018.
It is perhaps an indication of the club’s confidence in a roster that reached back to back African Finals, that they decided to use only three of their allowed four foreign player quota.
Top of that list is American Terrell Stoglin, a 29-year-old guard who played college ball at the University of Maryland, and has experience from playing in Greece, France, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Beirut, Turkey, China, Qatar, Bahrain, Venezuela, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Stoglin is a returnee, who was with the club initially but left during the COVID break. He is joined by Johndre Jefferson and Ra’Shad Deane James.
“We brought only three imports,” Bouzidi said. “Because the needs of the team now are not the same of pre-Covid-19. Hopefully they will pull the team forward.”
Despite the issues, El Bouzidi is happy about playing in the BAL and hopes to see the tournament grow bug enough to rival others: “I’m happy to play the first edition of the BAL and any coach will have the same attitude.
“BAL not only opens the door for African basketball but it is also its future.
“The organization is of high quality and professional. I hope it will develop into a similar league like the Euro-League and even the NBA.”