With less than a week to go before the FIBA Women's World Championships tip off in Brno and Ostrava, Czech Republic, on September 24, the American roster has yet to be finalized. USA Basketball's Selection Committee has managed to whittle the list of "final" contenders down to 18, and then to 14, but today (September 21) the U.S. must announce its final 12-member roster at the FIBA technical meeting.
Carol Callan, director of women's basketball programs for USA Basketball, told the media last April, when she introduced Geno Auriemma as the new head coach of the U.S. Women's Senior National Team through the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics, that the Selection Committee would take full advantage of the generous timeline FIBA allows before finalization of rosters, and she has certainly held true to her promise. While the roster uncertainty may keep players and their fans on pins and needles about their prospects (some players, obviously, experiencing more apprehension more than others), and deprives the Americans of the familiarity and improved teamwork that might come from an earlier decision on, at least, the core team, it also gives the Selection Committee an expanded opportunity to adjust for unknowns such as late-season injuries and to assess players who might be having a better (or worse)-than-expected season, as well as keeping athletes who might reject a designation as "practice players" on their toes and in the mix.
Still, it's difficult to assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of the American squad without knowing exactly who's on it (and it's got to be tough as well for a coach to formulate strategy without knowing exactly what he or she has to work with), leading to a quadrennial game of tea-leaf reading as pundits try to 'suss out who will ultimately make the squad.
For some, the question is purely academic. With the U.S. Women's Team already ranked No. 1 in the world and heavily favored to recapture the world title, there are those who will tell you it just doesn't matter -- no team in the world can upset the Americans in a "meaningful" game. Then again, that's what most observers thought in the run-up to the 2006 World Championships, only to see the U.S. fall to Russia in the semifinals and Australia walk away with the gold medal. The Aussies, currently ranked No. 3 in the world, are determined to defend their world title, and even without their star, Lauren Jackson (who, like Bird, just wrapped up her WNBA season with a national championship Thursday) have proved themselves capable of doing so in exhibition play. Australia soundly thrashed the Americans in a scrimmage held in conjunction with Team USA's July training camp, and though they dropped both games in the exhibition tournament held in Hartford, Connecticut last weekend -- losing to the U.S., 56-89, and to Spain, 74-87, the Opals avenged themselves Friday, defeating Team USA, 83-77, in an exhibition tournament held in Salamanca, Spain.
The basketball world, like the world at large, is full of confusing facts and incomplete information, and in basketball, as in life, more often than not, we must rely on logical and good-faith interpretations of such facts, rather than on certainties, in order to make predictions. Happily, though three of the American final roster contenders -- Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Angel McCoughtry -- were still engaged in the WNBA playoffs until Thursday, and have yet to join the team in its final training camp and warm-up play -- the exhibition games held over the past week in Connecticut and Spain offer plenty of material from which to predict who will make the team -- and what each will bring to the table -- when the roster is announced later this week in the Czech Republic.
Let's take a look.
On September 10 and 12, the U.S. Senior National Team, currently ranked first in the world by FIBA, played practice games against third-ranked Australia and fifth-ranked Spain in Hartford, Connecticut. The statistical game facts are known: The USA beat Australia, 89-56, and Spain, 85-69. For the two games, the USA shot 51 percent from the field overall and 44 percent from beyond the arc (12-27), out-rebounded their opponents, 94-57, and averaged 20 assists and 16 turnovers per game.
Each team played without key players. The USA didnt have Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Angel McCoughtry, Sylvia Fowles or Cappie Pondexter. Australia didnt have Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor or Belinda Snell. Spain didnt have Sancho Lyttle. Its hard to estimate how much each of these absences affected the games.
But the interpretation of the statistical facts is easy: Team USA played very well and easily defeated two strong opponents.
This past weekend, the remaining contenders for the American roster, still minus Bird, Cash and McCoughtry, played the Australians again in a friendly tournament in Salamanca, Spain. This time they fell to Australia (which was also still without Lauren Jackson), 77-83. Having fallen into the consolation bracket, the U.S. did not get a rematch with Spain, but handily defeated Senegal, one of the teams they will be facing in pool play, 93-51.
In the most recent loss to Australia, the U.S. shot the ball well enough, netting 30 of their 62 attempts from the field (48.4 percent). But the three-point attack was missing in action, as the U.S. went one-for-11 from beyond the arc (9.1 percent) to Australia's eight-of-16 (50 percent) from long range.
USA coach Geno Auriemma has voiced concerns several times about his teams comparative lack of height, but that didnt seam to matter much in Hartford against the towering Aussies, who featured 6-8 Elizabeth Cambage, a budding phenom who just turned 19. Some have compared Cambage favorably to Lauren Jackson at the same age, and after the game, Tina Charles said that Cambage was tougher to guard and had better post moves than Baylors 6-8 Brittney Griner. Nevertheless, the USA out-rebounded Australia in Hartford, 47-30.
Not so in Spain, where the U.S. lack of height seemed to affect the team's play considerably more, with the Americans also losing the battle of the boards to the Aussies, 38-43.
In Hartford, the leading two-game scorers for the USA were Kara Lawson and Maya Moore with 26 points apiece, Charles with 25, Tamika Catchings with 17, and Asjha Jones with 16. The leading rebounders were Charles with 15, Jayne Appel with 11, Catchings with 10, Ebony Hoffman with 9, and Jones with 8 for the two games.
In Spain, looking solely at the loss to Australia (and discounting the Senegal game due to the disparity in the level of competition), Charles led the U.S. in both scoring and rebounding with 18 points and seven boards. Diana Taurasi put up 12 points and pulled down three rebounds, and Tamika Catchings notched 11 points and five boards. Candice Dupree also had five rebounds but posted only three points in 23 minutes of play.
Interpreting all these facts may help determine which players, from those remaining in the USA pool are likely to make the final 12-player roster.
Coming into the Hartford weekend, the following five players were generally considered locks for roster spots: Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Cappie Pondexter and Sylvia Fowles (if healthy). Emerging from the Hartford weekend, the dominant performances of Maya Moore and Tina Charles during those two exhibition games should cement them both into the final roster, if they werent already, and we would add them both, as well as Kara Lawson to the list of locks. We would also subtract Cappie Pondexter from contention altogether. What?
Why drop the WNBA's second-leading scorer from contention for Team USA? After the game against Spain in Hartford, Auriemma dropped a bombshell: Pondexter has some issues, the said; she wont be accompanying the team to the practice games in Spain, and she will probably not join the team at all. Sure enough, when USA Basketball published its list of 14 finalists after the tournament in Spain, Pondexter's name was not among them.
In response to further inquiry from Full Court Press, a spokesperson for USA Basketball said that the team had been told that Cappie is very tired due to the year-round schedule, has some minor pains to attend to, and needs to take some time off to allow her body to rest. We were referred to Pondexter, who has reportedly been tweeting from New York's Fashion Week, for further specifics.
Lets turn to the guards. The absence of Cappie Pondexters prolific scoring ability will unquestionably hurt the USAs guard situation. Its reasonable to assume that of those remaining, four guards will be selected. If Taurasi and Bird are locks, have the exhibition games provided clues as to who else will make the roster? We think so.
Four guards competed in both Hartford; all four made the cut heading to Spain: Kara Lawson, Lindsey Harding, Renee Montgomery and Lindsay Whalen. Given that Lawson was a 2008 Olympian and that the other three have never been members of the Senior National Team, it seems reasonable to assume that Lawson had historical roster momentum on her side coming into Hartford. Going out of Hartford, she had two games worth of terrific performance and stats on her side, too.
Here are the cumulative performances of the four guards during the two games in Hartford:
Based history and current performance, we would add Kara Lawson as a roster lock in the third guard spot. At the opposite end of the spectrum, though Lindsey Harding made the trip to Spain as part of the final 17, we felt that her unimpressive performance in Hartford had already all but eliminated her from the final cut. Sure enough, in 11 minutes on the floor against Australia, Harding had but one steal to show for it in her stat line, and she did not make the list of the final 14.
As to the fourth guard spot, coming out of Hartford, we gave Whalen the edge over Montgomery at this stage because she showed stronger scoring, much better rebounding, equivalent assists, and has much more experience. Whalen only strengthened her claim to the fourth guard spot by her strong performance in the USA's subsequent exhibition game loss to Australia, 83-77, on September 17 in Salamanca, Spain."The same performance trends held true in Spain, where against Australia, Harding was six-of-seven from the field, and one-for-one from long range for a total of 13 points, to which she added three assists (to two turnovers), three rebounds, a steal and a block in 19 minutes of playing time. Montgomery, in comparison, was only one-for-three from the field and 0-for-one from three-point range for just five points (three of them at the charity stripe). She had one steal, but zero assists (to two turnovers) and no rebounds. As we expected, Montgomery did not make the list of 14 finalists coming out of Spain, while Whalen is still in the mix and will likely get the nod if the team goes with four guards.
Lets turn to the 3-4 positions, at which we already have Catchings and Moore as locks. Two of the players who were not in Hartford or Spain, Swin Cash and Angel McCoughtry, are both strong candidates for roster spots at these positions. What about Seimone Augustus? While still in contention, even after the list of finalists was cut to 14, she is still very much "on the bubble" because of her continued recovery from her ACL and MCL tears. Coach Auriemma spoke about Augustus in a lengthy analysis in which he pointed out that the real Seimone hasnt yet emerged from the injury, that younger players such and Maya and Angel can probably play her position, and that Seimone can still make the 2012 Olympic team even if not selected for the 2010 World Team. My interpretation is that Auriemma was diplomatically letting air out of the Augustus roster balloon.
Though we cannot compare Augustus's performance to that of McCoughtry or Cash, since neither of the latter were there for the exhibition play, we can take a look at the Augustus's performance in comparison to that of Catchings and Moore:
|Hartford Two-Game Performance|
Though on the roster, Moore did not play against Australia in Spain, but the same general trend continued with respect to Augustus's performance:
|Salamanca Performance vs. Australia|
All five of these players are still in contention, but our take is that Angel McCoughtry and Swin Cash, both healthy and both having terrific WNBA seasons will take Seimones spot and a fourth position at forward.
Finally, lets look at the low paint, the position where Auriemma is concerned about height. Fowles and Charles should both be considered locks, with Fowles' participation contingent only on her health.
Do the exhibition games suggest any final interpretations regarding the remaining four players -- Asjha Jones, Ebony Hoffman, Jayne Appel, and Candice Dupree -- who played that position? Here's how the players matched up in Hartford:
|Hartford Two-Game Performance|
Note: Candice Dupree played only one quarter of the game against Australia in Hartford, and did not take the floor against Spain. In evaluating her performance, one must take account that her statistics were achieved in just one game, rather than in two, as the others.
All four of these post candidates made the trip to Spain. None did anything to improve her case against Australia, where they put up the following numbers:
|Salamanca Performance vs. Australia|
Though she got the start in Salamanca, we assessed Hoffman as having the weakest chance to make the final roster of the four contenders. Shes a late add-on, shes really not that tall (maybe 6-2), and her play was good but undistinguished. Moreover, Jones and Appel are both more physical on defense, and Dupree is much smoother and elegant on offense. True to predictions, Hoffman failed to make the cut to the final 14, while Jones, Appel and Dupree all remain in play.
So who among them is most likely to make the final cut? A lot depends on the state of Sylvia Fowles's knee. All three of the contending paint players have unique strengths. Jones was given the most minutes of the four players by farsecond most on the team, in factand it wasnt because Auriemma, her former college coach, is unfamiliar with her game.
Dupree is also in a strong position because she looked so good offensively in the short time she played and because she played so well in the WNBA All-Star game.
Hence, post-Hartford in the low post, it is reasonable to give two of the remaining three roster spots to Jones and Dupree.
So who gets the 12th and final spot? Auriemma and other staff members have said that, at this point, they just don't know whether Fowles can play or how effective she can be if she does. If Sylvia is close to 100 percent, that may give the 12th spot to Cash or McCoughtry, whichever one didnt get the Augustus spot. Indeed, both may get roster berths if the Selection Committee decides to go with four guards, given the ability of Taurasi and others to play multiple positions.
If Sylvia takes a roster spot but seems iffy, the 12th spot may go to Appel as post insurance. Appel is in a stronger position than her minutes suggest because both Auriemma and Tina Charles, in the press conferences, praised Appel strongly for being the most physical and effective defender against the 6-8 Elizabeth Cambage. In that case, look for Whalen possibly to fall out of the guard picture to make room for Cash or McCoughtry.
If Fowles does not make the team at all, then Appel, McCoughtry and Cash should all get roster spots.
USA Basketball announced its final 12-member roster at 5:52 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on September 21. Glenn McGrady's predictions proved accurate in all but one respect.
The following players were named to the final roster:
|Sue Bird||Seattle Storm||Guard||5-9|
|Diana Taurasi||Phoenix Mercury||Guard-Forward||6-0|
|Lindsay Whalen||Minnesota Lynx||Guard||5-9|
|Tamika Catchings||Indiana Fever||Forward||6-0|
|Swin Cash||Seattle Storm||Forward||6-1|
|Angel McCoughtry||Atlanta Dream||Forward||6-1|
|Maya Moore||University of Connecticut||Forward||6-0|
|Candice Dupree||Phoenix Mercury||Forward||6-2|
|Asjha Jones||Connecticut Sun||Forward||6-3|
|Sylvia Fowles||Chicago Sky||Center||6-6|
|Tina Charles||Connecticut Sun||Center||6-3|
|Jayne Appel||San Antonio Silver Stars||Center||6-4|
Bird, Catchings and Taurasi own two Olympic gold medals apiece (2004, Athens; 2008, Beijing). Fowles (2008, Beijing) and Cash (2004, Athens) are also Olympic gold-medalists. The remaining players are newcomers to the U.S. Senior Women's National Team, but each has international experience representing the United States in a variety of USA Basketball developmental programs.
As predicted, Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx), still in recovery mode from both knee injuries sustained last year and fibroid surgery undertaken at the start of this season, failed to make the cut. Despite her own knee problems, Sylvia Fowles was retained, indicating a belief on the part of a Selection Committee concerned by the team's lack of height, that she will likely be able to contribute at some point in the World Championship competition.
However, contrary to expectations, Olympic gold medalist Kara Lawson (Connecticut Sun) was waived in favor of Senior National Team newcomer Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx). Lawson was among the last to be selected for the squad that represented the United States at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; however, her dogged defense and three-point marksmanship were substantial contributors to the American success in the semifinals and finals there.
"The process has been unbelievably difficult. It's taken a lot out of us, the committee, coaches, staff," said USA and University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma in a statement released by USA Basketball. "It was probably the most difficult time that I've had as a coach in 35 years. When you have to say goodbye to players as committed to USA Basketball as Kara (Lawson) and Seimone (Augustus) have been, it's very, very, very difficult. But there's so much uncertainty in our post players position that we had to make some very difficult decisions. I think the team that was picked is a terrific team. It's a terrific group of kids and the next nine games will give us an opportunity to prove that."
USA Basketball Women's National Team Director Carol Callan reiterated Auriemma's sentiments about the difficulty of the selection process. "After four exhibition games and the scrimmage against the Czech Republic, we believe we have selected the 12 players who will make the best team to be competitive at the World Championship," Callan stated. "These players fill various needs that this team has in terms of the international styles of play that we will face in the Czech Republic."
"Players not selected have been and remain a vital part of the USA National Team program and we appreciate the effort they gave throughout our training camps in helping the USA prepare for this important competition," Callan added. "Again, it was not an easy decision to make. Any combination of the 14 finalists would make a formidable team, which is why this was such a tough decision to make."
Bird, Taurasi, Catchings, and McCoughtry would appear to be the likely starters (unless Auriemma elects to start Dupree, while McCoughtry and Cash, who have only now joined the team in the Czech Republic, become more fully integrated into the program). The starting nod at center will depend on the state of Fowles' knee. In all likelihood, Tina Charles will get the start unless Fowles bounces back to 100 percent (or close to it), but Auriemma and his staff will be hoping to see significant minutes for the Sky star who won MVP honors for her performance on behalf of Team USA at this year's WNBA All-Star game.
Miscellaneous tidbits from the Hartford weekend:
Seimone Augustus had benign tumors in her abdomen the size of oranges while in college, which grew so much bigger in recent years that they began tilting her uterus. This caused her to experience labor contractions. She had to have the tumors and her uterus surgically removed.
Jayne Appels knee problem is damaged meniscus cartilage. She thinks she may be one more surgery away from bone-on-bone.
Asjha Jones knee problem is damaged articular cartilage. She has been given injections of a lubricant to relieve the situation.
Geno Auriemma does not believe his 2011 recruiting will be affected by his three-week absence to Europe, because he is confident that he has already done everything regarding this years recruiting that needs his personal attention.