FullCourt.com is proud to kick off coverage of what will be our fifth Olympic Games with an overview of the complete women's basketball field bound for London.
All 12 teams are entitled to immense respect simply for being part of the Olympic field, a right all but one of them -- Great Britain, which qualified automatically as host country -- earned by beating out the best teams from their own continents. And we all know -- as even vaunted Team USA learned to its dismay at the 2006 World Championships in São Paulo, Brazil -- that anything can happen once the hightops hit the hardwood.
Over the next two weeks, we'll be bringing you a more in-depth look at each of these teams, but for now, let's take a quick look at the high points. To help our readers get the lay of the land, we've divided the teams into three broad groups: 1) The four teams that we see as just happy to be there, enjoying London and the prestige of forever being entitled to call themselves Olympians -- but unlikely to progress out of preliminary-rounds; 2) The teams we view as likely still to be around by the second week in August for the quarterfinals, but whose Olympic journeys will most likely end there; and 3) The medal contenders -- the three perennial favorites, plus the team we see as most likely to join them in the semifinals to vie for an Olympic medal.
Happy to Be There
WNBA GMs may want to seize the opportunity to scope out the Afrobasket champs' high-flying 26-year-old wing Sonia Guadalupe when the Gingas make their Olympic debut -- but they'd better be quick about it. It's been eight years since Nigeria made Olympic history by becoming the first African team ever to win even a single game at the Olympics (and that was in the consolation bracket). If Angola manages even to repeat that feat, there will be dancing in the streets of Luanda.
Based on FIBA's world rankings, British women's basketball was even weaker than Angola's -- so bad, in fact, that FIBA seriously considered denying them the automatic berth traditionally accorded host nations. Enter Australian master mechanic Tom Maher and a handful of American collegians and international pros with British ties, who have helped Great Britain achieve a sufficient level of competence to allay FIBA's concerns and even put a scare or two into some overconfident power teams. Four years of hard work, plus the pride of playing before enthusiastic home crowds, could carry the Brits through a game or two, but the chances of Britain progressing as far as the quarterfinals, much less of contending for a medal, rank somewhere between "zed" and none.
The Maher magic propelled China to a fourth-place finish in Beijing and China is still ranked No. 7 in the world by FIBA. Though the Chinese still have great height to go with the perimeter-shooting prowess for which the elite Asian teams have long been known, they appeared foul-prone, slow of foot on both sides of the ball and somewhat disorganized in their recent prep trek through North America, suggesting that unless they have been playing possum, this edition of Team China is a far weaker product. May's 100-62 thumping by Team USA was no big surprise, but splitting their three-game exhibition series with Canada -- and close calls against New Zealand and Angola -- were not the kind of omens you'd want to find in your fortune cookie.
After wresting the final ticket to London from the grip of the Japanese earlier this month, Canada makes its return to the Olympic field after a 12-year hiatus. This team features tough defense and great teamwork, but to win at basketball -- all the more so in the Group of Death, as Canada's Pool B has become known -- you still need to put the ball in the hole. With former Vermont star Courtnay Pilypaitis the only consistent double-digit scorer, this team will need a lot more offense out of veteran team captain Kim Smith and her squad of current and former U.S. collegians if they're to spend more than a week in the Olympic Village.
Likely Still To Be Around by the Second Week in August
The top four teams from each of the two incredibly imbalanced preliminary-round groups will advance to the quarterfinals, which kick off on Tuesday, Aug. 7. At that point, the format shifts to sudden-death, single-elimination play. Though any team making it this far could go further should the stars align, we see the following four teams as the ones most likely to make the first cut, then see their Olympic journeys end in the quarterfinals.
Croatia has emerged seemingly out of nowhere to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in European women's basketball, elbowing perennial European power Spain out of the Olympic field at 2011 Eurobasket Women -- and that was with three of the Croats' best players injured. With all of its starters now back in good form, Croatia should bring excellent ball movement, a strong inside-outside game and, with the post anchored by rising star Marija Vrsaljko, a 6-6 center who will turn 23 during the Olympics, nice height to bear in their Olympic debut -- assuming, that is, that the Balkan representatives can avoid another visit from the injury bug.
If Croatia impressed at the 2011 Eurobasket, Turkey did the same and then some as 6-4 center Nevriye Yilmaz led the Turks to a 69-62 semifinals upset of defending champion France and into the gold-medal game, where they finished as runners-up to Russia. If inconsistent perimeter shooting doesn't spoil the coming-out party, Turkey's speed, plus a lot of post height -- Yilmaz is complemented by newly minted Turk 24-year-old, U.S.-born Quanitra Hollingsworth, the former Virginia Commonwealth star who has been playing in Europe after a short-lived stint with the WNBA's New York Liberty -- should serve them in good stead.
Beloved for its emotional and passionate approach to the game, Brazil is hungry for a return to the medal stand in anticipation of hosting the 2016 Games -- and the South Americans have the talent to get there with 6-6 WNBA All-Star and longtime national team veteran Erika de Souza (Atlanta Dream) anchoring the post alongside 19-year-old sensation and Minnesota Lynx draftee Damiris Dantas. Brazil also has Adrianinha Moises Pinto (formerly of the Phoenix Mercury) holding down the point and the fiery Iziane Castro Marques (formerly with the Atlanta Dream) penetrating from the wing. The question mark is whether new coach Luiz Claudio Taralio has been able to instill a greater technical consistency, mental toughness and emotional resilience in a group of players who tend to wear their hearts on the outside of their jerseys. A 3-4 record in prep games, which includes three straight losses to Australia (the last by a 102-58 margin) is none too promising.
Les Bleus, the top team in Europe only three years ago, have, as the saying goes, always been the bridesmaid, never the bride when it comes to Olympic basketball -- a regular Olympic participant, France often makes it as far as the quarterfinals, but its best-ever finish was fifth place ... and that was more than a decade ago at Sydney 2000. But this year, their 16-0 record in preparatory games has France atop the FIBA power ladder, suggesting that the deft guard play of pass-first point Céline Dumerc, good post height in the person of 6-4 center Sandrine Gruda (Connecticut Sun) and her 6-2 understudy Endéné Miyem (the youngest member of the team at age 24), and, above all, experience, could be the right combination to overcome this team's weak shooting on the perimeter and at the penalty stripe and propel the French to the podium in London.
Top Medal Contenders
By Thursday, Aug. 9, the field will have been cut to the final four teams, who will meet first in the semifinals and then, on Saturday, Aug. 11, in the bronze and gold-medal matches. The big three -- the United States, Australia and Russia -- have been among the final four in each of the last three Olympics (and, in some cases, even longer), and London 2012 is likely to prove no different.
But which team is most likely to fill out that fourth semifinal berth and contend for more than the participation hardware? While any of the quarterfinalists could make the cut (and even China or Canada could exceed expectations), if forced to choose -- and at the risk of being proven Dead Wrong in Public -- we'd give the nod to the Czech Republic, the only team in the field other than the big three to have defeated all of the top contenders other than the United States.
|Photo Caption: Czechs joyfully celebrate their first-ever World Championships silver medal. Can they reprise the feat in London with a return to the medal stand?|
|Photo Credit: Tara Polen|
The Czech Republic dethroned Russia, the perennial European champs, at 2005's Eurobasket Women and has put a scare into the Russians several times before and since; they also convincingly defeated Brazil (84-70) and Australia (79-68) on the way to a second-place finish at the 2010 Women's World Championships. The Czechs stumbled a bit, finishing fourth at Eurobasket 2011 and that perceived weakness has their opponents gunning for revenge in London. A lot more scoring from the Czech bigs would certainly help and they won't be able to ride the tide of home-crowd support in London, as they did in Karlovy Vary in 2010. But World Championship MVP and National Team captain Hana Horakova, who missed Eurobasket 2011, is back to run the show on the floor, while veteran forward Eva Viteckova, who joined Horakova on the 2010 Worlds All-Tournament Team, also returns to the lineup, and 22-year-old newcomer Katerina Elhotova, a 5-11 wing, adds even more scoring punch, already replacing Viteckova as the team's leading scorer.
Russia, the most decorated team in the world, apart from the United States -- and the only nation to have beaten the Americans in FIBA competition in over a decade -- is also the biggest wild card in this year's Olympic field. Long known for their powerful post play and for their weakness at the point, the Russians have remedied the latter problem by naturalizing South Dakotan Becky Hammon, whose game shows little sign of her advancing age. But Russia will take the floor in London minus both of its post legends: Elena Baranova (New York LIberty), now retired from National Team play, and three-time European Player of the Year Maria Stepanova (Phoenix Mercury), lost to a torn ACL. Russia's new head coach worsened a bad situation by inexplicably cutting veteran forward and former team captain Svetlana Abrosimova (UConn, Seattle Storm) which leaves Russia's hopes for a return to the medal stand hinging heavily on the weak reed of 31-year-old veteran center Irina Osipova (6-5) and a trio of tall but relatively unknown post newcomers -- none of whom averages more than seven points a game in National Team play. Maybe the Russians will get strong perimeter play from another Olympic newcomer, 26-year-old wing Elena Daniochkina, MVP of the 2011 Eurobasket Women, and currently the team's leading scorer (13.9 ppg) and three-point threat (.543 3FG%).
Australia will arrive in London hungry to transform its string of silver-medal finishes into gold and capable, if it chose, of fielding a starting five consisting entirely of post players standing 6-2 or better. But can the most prodigious post lineup in the Olympic field, the arrival of talented newcomers like Rachel Barry, plus the luxury of three months together to train as a team as well as to rest bodies battered by year-round play, be enough to offset the loss of the athleticism, experience and firepower of Opals co-captain Penny Taylor, lost for the season to an ACL tear? So far, the jury is still out: The Aussies have won six of their eight prep games, including a split with Russia, a meaningful win over a strong opponent in the Czech Republic (67-48), and a three-game sweep of Brazil, the last one by a statement score of 102-58, but losses to Hungary (85-76), which did not even qualify for the Olympics, and a closer-than-expected win over potential quarterfinal opponent Turkey (57-49) suggests there is work that remains to be done.
Other teams may feature a superior player at one position or another, but as it heads to London in pursuit of a fifth consecutive gold medal, Team USA is the overwhelming favorite thanks to an aggregate depth of talent that no other team in the world can match. Still, while anything less than gold is likely to be perceived as an abject failure, a return to the middle riser, though a high probability, is by no means a certainty, as the Americans learned to their chagrin with their bronze-medal finish at the 2006 Worlds. With the last of the 1996 squad, which launched the American gold-medal streak in Atlanta after a full year of training and competing together as a team, now retired, the Americans' biggest questions are whether two weeks will be enough for Geno Auriemma to transform his roster of un-rested and banged-up WNBA All-Stars into an actual team -- or whether the cumulative effect of the U.S. talent disparity is so great that well-practiced teamwork simply doesn't matter.
|U.S. Olympic center LIsa Leslie displays the four gold medals she won as a member of Team USA (Photo be Lee Michaelson/Full Court Press)|
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