|FIBA World Ranking||No. 1|
|How qualified||2010 FIBA Women's World Basketball Champions|
|Key veteran||Tamika Catchings|
|Rising star||Maya Moore|
|Olympic medals||Gold - six (Beijing 2008, Athens 2004, Sydney 2000, Atlanta 1996, Seoul 1988, Los Angeles 1984); Silver - one (Montreal 1976); Bronze - one (Barcelona 1992)|
|World Championship medals||Gold - eight (2010, 2002, 1998, 1990, 1986, 1979, 1957, 1953); Silver - one (1983); Bronze - two (2006, 1994)|
|Preliminary round group||Group A|
Why is Team USA the overwhelming favorite in London? Depth.
Pretty much every team in the Olympic field boasts at least one star and the top contenders might have two or three on their rosters. But nobody but the Americans fields an entire team of all-stars. One through 12, from the most senior of veterans to the greenest of rookies, from the starting five to the last player off the bench, every member of the U.S. squad has earned gold on the international stage. Even the five players who are making their Olympic debuts -- Tina Charles, Asjha Jones, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen -- own gold medals from the 2010 Women's World Championships, while veterans like Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have as many as four Olympic and World Championship gold medals to their credit.
Adding to that the assortment of individual and team championships and other honors these players have won at the collegiate and professional level makes this a team that not only knows how to win on the biggest of stages but also is simply expected to do so.
That depth allows the U.S. to rotate players, and even complete lineups, liberally without seeing an appreciable dropoff in productivity. It allows each member of the squad to play 20 minutes or less throughout the preliminaries, and that rest will be an important advantage in a tournament in which the teams who go the distance will have played eight high-intensity games in a two-week span.
Still, not even the huge edge in talent renders the U.S. team invincible, a lesson learned painfully in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships in Brazil. If they are return to the medal stand, much less bring home their fifth consecutive gold, there are a number of obstacles Team USA will have to negotiate successfully, the first and foremost being their limited time to prepare as a team. The last time an American team had that chance was prior to the 1996 Olympics, and prior to the birth of the WNBA -- and London 2012 will be the first Olympics since 1996 at which not a single member of that team will be on the roster. Ever since, players from that 1995-96 touring team formed the core group for later Olympic and World Championship squads, enabling each new group to pick up where the old one had left off, initiating a handful of newcomers to each successive team in a shared understanding of team tactics, rather than starting over from scratch.
That's no longer the case since Lisa Leslie, the last of the 95-96 era, retired from the team with her fourth Olympic gold medal after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. USA Basketball has done its best to help this roster adjust to the lack of extended prep time, identifying the squad early and selecting fully half of the players from former members of head coach Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies, allowing them to capitalize on their familiarity with his coaching strategies. Still, while the other major contenders have been huddled together for months, working out their plays and learning where to find one another on the floor, Team USA has been scattered to the four corners of the American continent, playing for a host of different clubs. The players finally got together July 14, giving them just two weeks of concentrated practice before the first game in London. The actual time of earlier short-term training camps, like the one in Seattle in May, is realistically measured in hours not days.
"I'm really preparing the best I can," said McCoughtry at the Seattle camp. "It's tough to transition from your WNBA team to USA Basketball."
And that tough transition is a big reason why turnovers have been the bane of U.S. teams year after year.
Another hurdle is health. While other national teams have been able to alternate between practice, play and rest, most of the American players have been leapfrogging from WNBA regular-season and playoff commitments to European club play and back to their WNBA training camps with precious little rest over the past year. That's hard on an athlete's body and Diana Taurasi, the American selection to the All-Tournament Teams at both the 2006 and 2010 World Championships, has missed much of the past two months of the WNBA season with a hip flexor injury. Yes, she's a great player, but how much the injury, and the time off, will impact her performance won't become clear until well into Olympic competition.
And what about Candace Parker, who hurt her shoulder playing for the L.A. Sparks, and has a long list of injuries. Will she be at her best when the team tips off in London? The same question can be asked of McCoughtry, Catchings and other players who have suffered minor tweaks over the course of the season, with little time for R and R. How will Auriemma's army of banged up all-stars fare against other teams, even those that maybe are somewhat less talented in the aggregate, but have had the benefit of time to rest and repair their bodies?
Third, while some might bemoan the "easy draw" received by the Americans, the truth is that the imbalanced pools may work to the advantage of the major contenders in Group B and to the detriment of the U.S. and other members of Pool A. True, Australia, Russia and the rest of Pool B will face far more challenging preliminary-round competition, but at the end of the day, all they must do to progress to the Olympic quarterfinals is finish among the top four teams in their pool of six. However, the U.S. and other teams who progress out of Group A will be forced to take on the stronger teams in Pool B in the quarterfinals and beyond, when a single loss leads to instant elimination.
Finally, the Americans will play under the pressure of high expectations, where achieving yet another gold medal seems barely newsworthy, while leaving with anything less than gold will be perceived as total failure.
“Any time you coach USA Basketball, there’s inherent pressure,” Auriemma of the team's quest for its fifth-straight Olympic gold, “pressure on you as a coach to make sure you do a great job with your team, make sure you’re prepared and that the players are ready for whatever comes your way and we’re committed to one goal as a team. So, there’s that pressure. There’s the pressure that the players put on themselves because they’re winners. They’re used to winning. There’s pressure in the fact that the United States has won four gold medals in a row. That’s a good kind of pressure. To me, that’s the kind of pressure that makes you even better, because the bar’s set really, really high. Knowing the competitive nature of the group and the coaching staff, the higher the bar, the better we like it. I’m thrilled that we won four in a row. I have a tremendous admiration for the coaches who have coached in those four gold medal games and those players who have played in them. I hope we can continue to add to that legacy.”
And if Team USA does not, it will be four long years before there will be any chance of redemption.
- London 2012: Angola -- Just happy to be there
- London 2012: Australia -- Can team training offset the loss of Penny Taylor?
- London 2012: Brazil -- With Castro Marques gone, so are Brazil's medal hopes
- London 2012: Canada -- Needs a little luck to advance
- London 2012: China -- It's been a struggle since Beijing
- London 2012: Croatia -- Here's the upset special
- London 2012: Czech Republic -- Experience plus size could equal a medal
- London 2012: France -- It's now or never for Les Bleus
- London 2012: Great Britain -- Hosts hoping for a win
- London 2012: Russia -- As usual, an enigma
- 2012 London: Turkey -- Plenty of size, but shooters are the key