At this point, it is traditional for the sports journalist to settle back, assemble information, cogitate thoroughly, and then deliver a thoughtful analysis of the next round of competition.
That is a wonderful theory, but as is often the case, some annoying facts are going to get in the way. Consider:
1) Of the eight teams left in the women’s basketball quarterfinals, two stand out. The United States, the heavy favorite, is one, and Canada, the plucky over-achiever, is the other. On top of that, those two play each other in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, which means they don’t really factor into the discussion.
2) The six remaining teams are all talented, competent international teams. Two will win medals, very likely (only a shocking upset or two of the U.S. would allow three on the podium), and only those two will consider the Olympics a success.
So what do coaches need to do to maximize their chances of being one of the lucky two?
Obviously, win the first game of the knockout rounds. If France, which zipped through the tough Group B unscathed to take the No. 1 seed from that pool, gets knocked off by the Czech Republic Tuesday, then its pool play success will mean less than zero, because it will simply mean Les Bleues choked in the quarterfinals.
What makes this task difficult is that it appears that each of the six is more than capable of winning the opening game, and equally, that each of the six is capable of losing. Which means that Tuesday’s games should be some of the most intense and entertaining of the entire Olympics – except for Canada and the U.S. Canada's rally on Sunday to close on Ausstralia means the U.S. cannot afford to let its guard down, but still, given the gross disparity in both talent and experience, after a nip-and-tuck quarter or so, this looks to be yet another boring American blowout.
OK, simple enough – win game one. How to do that? Since there’s no real time to practice, coaches must prepare their teams mentally rather than physically, which means scout like demons. Each team needs a clear plan of attack, a path to victory, and given the relatively equal merits of the teams, the coach with the better plan may give his or her team the edge it needs to move on.
That said, though, none of these coaches fell off the turnip truck and landed on the bench in London. Once it was clear their team was going to make it into the quarterfinals, there was no advantage – and in fact, a distinct disadvantage – to showing potential opponents all the cards in their deck. (Of course, it always helps to practice what you want to do in game situations, but these teams have had months of practice leading up to the Olympics to refine, say, a 2-2-1 fullcourt press that could conceivably catch the other coach completely by surprise).
All of this is a long way of saying that the journalist’s traditional task of clearly outlining what to expect in the next group of games is all but impossible. Russia, after all, clearly tanked against France, and once China clinched its quarterfinal spot, the Asian representative went completely vanilla, even to the point of being outscored 66-20 in the second and third quarters against the United States in a meaningless game.
So take these previews as what they are: Pure guesswork. The eye test may lead observers to believe Russia is the deepest, most athletic team aside from the United States, but it could be that the French really are that good. Or it might be that the Czechs have been saving up some strategic byplay that will befuddle their opposition and put them on the podium when all is said and done.
2 p.m. London time
Let’s see, the United States is taller, bigger, faster, quicker, deeper, more experienced, more confident and more skilled.
The Canadians, on the other hand, qualified for the quarters by beating two teams that combined for one win.
Of course, the Americans have let teams hang around, sometimes well into the second half, and it could be that if that happens against Canada, Olympic pressure will assert itself, Team USA will lose its composure, Kim Smith will start draining threes, Shona Thorburn will make great decisions and somehow the Canadians will win.
And if you believe that’s likely, I have some credit default swaps I’d love to talk to you about.
(Photo courtesy of London 2012)
10:15 p.m. London time
The Czechs lost their first two games, one by nine and one by four, but thumped Croatia by 19 to lock in their quarterfinal slot. The French, though unbeaten, won twice in overtime, and so it’s quite possible that the comparative records don’t mean as much as they appear.
Then again, if star Czech guard Hana Horakova doesn’t pick things up, the Eastern Europeans could find themselves in big trouble against the solid French backcourt of Celine Dumerc and Edwige Lawson-Wade. Horakova, expected to be the sparkplug for the Czechs, is just 10 for 38 from the field, and though she’s defending, rebounding and passing well, she has to score for her team to pull off the first-round semi-upset.
Veteran Eva Viteckova is the leading scorer after pool play at 14.8 per game, but it’s unrealistic to expect the 6-3 forward to keep knocking down 54 percent of her three-pointers. Another area of concern is rebounding, as Horakova, the point guard, is the team leader in that department.
Still, it wouldn’t take much for the Czechs to play significantly better. Horakova hits some shots, say, WNBA vet Jana Vesela has a big game, and one of the tall Czech posts catches fire, and suddenly the fourth-place finisher in pool play looks a lot more like a second-place finisher.
If you believe in momentum, though, the French are in great position. Dumerc made those two major clutch shots against the British, and has a 15/7 A/TO while Isabelle Yacoubou, Elodie Godin and Sandrine Gruda have supplied the inside balance. Lawson-Wade, despite coming off the bench, has played the third most minutes, and she is more athletic than any of the Czech guards.
Overall, though, the French have more turnovers than assists and aside from Dumerc, have not been impressive as outside shooters. And of course, they have been lucky, as overtime wins could easily go the other way.
And last but not least, there’s the strategy factor: What do these coaches have up their sleeves heading into the knockout round? It’s possible we’ve seen all the arrows in the quiver at this point, but I wouldn’t bet the rent.
4:15 p.m. London time
Though Lauren Jackson doesn’t look like the Lauren Jackson of old, she’s still 6-5 and she’s still a tremendous player – and 6-8 Elizabeth Cambage is on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s best.
Toss in 6-5 veteran Suzie Batkovic and the Opals have the best inside game in London. True, it sputtered when Canada went to a zone against the Aussies in the last game of pool play, but does anyone think Carrie Graf showed her entire zone attack arsenal in a game that didn’t matter?
Nonetheless, the Chinese can be expected to show a zone now and again, especially if they want to use surprisingly athletic 6-9 youngster Wei Wei. She played in the middle of a 1-3-1 zone for the Chinese earlier, and also hit a midrange jumper. (Alert: That 1-3-1 zone could have solely been a distraction, as it forced Australia, and every future opponent, to prepare for it. Even if coach Sun Fengwu doesn’t ever use it again, Australia had to waste valuable practice time working on how to attack it.)
The Chinese, like the Czechs, need their lead guard to step up. Maio Lijie has missed all 12 of her three-pointers, and is shooting just 31 percent – if the Chinese are to advance, she must make more shots. But again, like Horakova, she’s doing other things, as her A/TO is a phenomenal 37/10 and she’s drawn 20 fouls.
Leading scorer and rebounder Chen Nan, though, has a tougher task, as she will pretty much have to battle the Australian bigs all by herself. Wei is a long, slender 6-9 and will get pushed to Stonehenge by the Australian posts, so Chen will need to rise to the occasion in a big way if China is have a chance.
Neither team, not surprisingly, played very well on the last day of pool play, but rest assured both will come out with much more intensity and energy on Tuesday. But it does seem that Australia at its best is better than China at its best, so a semifinal matchup between the Opals and Team USA does seem likely.
8 p.m. London time
Traditionally, Russia in pool play and Russia in the knockout round are two completely different teams. Different players start, different defenses are used, different offenses are run – and there’s no reason to expect anything to change in London.
Still, however, it’s clear that the Russians’ big advantage is size. Four players 6-3 or taller average more than 13 minutes a game, and 6-3 Natalia Vodopyanova has started two games even though she has played limited minutes.
In addition, there’s Becky Hammon, at 35 still one of the best guards in the world, and Hammon leads her team in points, assists and steals. Oddly, though, she’s only shooting 26 percent from three-point distance, and WNBA fans know that is unusually low – and most likely means she’ll start raining threes next time out.
Evgeniya Belyakova, though, is 10 for 20 from beyond the arc, and though the 6-0 wing hasn’t done much else except hit long-range shots, if you’re only going to do one thing, that’s a good one to start with. Two other players of note in pool play were Alena Danilochkina, an athletic 6-0 guard, and veteran Irina Osipova, who is both skilled and 6-6.
One weakness so far is free-throw shooting: The Russians are making just 65 percent, but then again they haven’t been the most focused team since they clinched their spot in the quarterfinals.
Of course, Turkey limited post Nevriye Yilmaz, guard Birsel Vardarli and wing Bahar Caglar to fewer than 20 minutes each in a 70-65 win over Croatia, so it wasn’t like the Turks were going all out either. That meant Quanitra Hollingsworth (or, as it’s spelled in her new country, Kuanitra Holingsvorth) wound up as the leading scorer in pool play at just 10.6 a game. But look for Vardarli, Yilmaz and Caglar to do a lot more scoring on Tuesday.
Of course, nothing is certain, as both teams had no motivation to reveal their whole arsenal. After all, the most important game for both teams is the next one, with the losers heading home as disappointments. The winners will be just one victory away from a medal, on the other hand, so there’s no reason to hide anything any more.
Whatever these teams can do will be on display Tuesday – and that goes for every team but the United States. For three of the middle six, the Olympics will essentially be over, and there’s no reason to save any strategy, or any player, for a more important game later on -- because a loss in this one means there is no later on