/ 10 May 2024

Cape Town Tigers need to get their claws out

Fus V Cape Town Min
Somusa Mthembu of the Cape Town Tigers in action against Morocco’s FUS Rabat Basketball. The Tigers took on Rabat twice in the Kalahari Conference, losing in both games. Photo: Barry Aldworth/xPect Life & Kevin Couliau/NBAE/Getty Images

In March, at the sumptuous Sunbet Arena in Pretoria, the Basketball Africa League rolled out its Kalahari Conference tournament for the fourth season. It was the first time the league had held games in South Africa since the inaugural season in 2021. 

It marked a culmination point as South Africa was finally able to become one of four host countries for pre-playoff play. Seven countries were initially chosen for what would’ve been the inaugural season in 2020. Then the pandemic hit and, when the league resumed, the list of host countries was truncated and all games were played in a bubble format in Rwanda.

In four seasons of the Basketball Africa League, South Africa has only fielded one team, the Cape Town Tigers, to the playoff rounds. 

Having lost in the quarterfinals in both 2022 and last year, they qualified in November for the regular season in their conference, the Kalahari. 

The Tigers played against first-timers Dynamo Basketball Club (from Burundi), FUS Rabat Basketball (Morocco) and decorated and tenured Petro de Luanda (Angola). 

They won only one game in five — a hard-fought battle against Petro that ended with a 84-78 scoreline on the penultimate day of competition. 

Although they played against Dynamo in their opening game, the team’s statistics from all games were ultimately scrapped after Dynamo forfeited their participation in the league.

This was because they refused to wear the regulation uniforms, supposedly because of Burundi’s diplomatic tension with Rwanda, a huge sponsor of the league.

Dynamo’s failures might have helped the Tigers’ campaign. The team’s dismal performance all but got them eliminated from the playoffs, which are due to take place in Kigali later this month. 

Ending the Kalahari Conference last in the pool backed them into a corner of playoff purgatory, an undesirable situation where they’d have to wait for the next conference to play out before finding out their fate.

The Nile Conference in Egypt, which concluded on 27 April, sent Egypt’s Al Ahly and Libya’s Al Ahly Ly to the playoffs while Bangui SC of the Central African Republic still awaits their fate, much like the Tigers had to.

The fourth team for that pool, Uganda’s City Oilers, finished last and were eliminated. 

Fortunately for the Tigers, though, their goal difference ultimately allowed them to make it through to the Kigali tournament. 

Starting guard Samkelo Cele led the team in scoring, averaging 20.5 points throughout the tournament. Weighing in on the team’s journey, Cele stressed the team’s readiness — or lack thereof. “The one that was visible for everybody to see — we didn’t rebound the ball well. The second one is preparation. We started prep on 26 February [their first game was on 9 March] … Should we make it to the playoffs, we’ve just got to prepare, you know, to build more team charisma, cohesion, whatever. 

“For the most part just preparation, preparation, preparation — that’s it. Because the personnel is fine, we’ve got shooters, great defenders, good rebounders. I think the more time we spend preparing, we’ll probably produce a better product,” Cele said.

The team will indeed need to be a lot stronger to even keep up in the next phase where the intensity in competition is far more pronounced. 

Particularly on the rebounding front, playoff basketball won’t be kind to their shortcomings. 

Tigers power forward Billy Preston, on whom the team relied heavily both in the paint as well as offensively, noted the team’s size issues. 

“They were way bigger than us, were able to overpower us in the paint, get more rebounds than us, that’s where we lost the game at, on the offensive boards and not boxing-out,” he said after their last game against FUS Rabat. 

“If we came out in the first three games, like we did these last two, we probably wouldn’t have the record that we do now. Our team just got together, we didn’t have that long to prepare for this conference, so that was probably the thing, chemistry and camaraderie, knowing each other’s game … Unfortunately, it was a little too late but we got better collectively, as a group, towards the end.”

Although he did not disclose the exact issues the team needed to work on for the playoffs, head coach Florsheim Ngwenya did acknowledge the need for improvement. 

“I intend to address [the issues]. There’s a couple of things that we need to address. Moving forward, we just have to get better.”

If the Cape Town Tigers are to make it to the quarterfinals again — or go further — they’ll have to get their on- and off-court ducks in a row to compete with the continent’s best ballers and well-established franchises.

The BAL Sahara Conference is underway in Dakar where games will conclude on 12 May and playoff games begin on 24 May.