Tours de Force by U.S. Teens Suggests a Dominant Future for U.S. in International Women's Basketball
Two undefeated teams of teenagers will take the floor tonight in Mexico City in the gold-medal game of the 2009 FIBA Americas Women's U16 Championships. But one of those teams has battled its way to the championship game, while the other has sailed through the tournament, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
No one's taking the outcome for granted -- certainly not the coaching staff or players of the U.S. team, who spoke to Full Court after their shoot-around in preparation for the game this morning. There's no smack talk in USA Basketball. In the respectful demeanor that has become a hallmark of the U.S. Women's National Team, head coach Barbara Nelson and her players made no predictions and had nothing but praise for the Canadian adversaries they will face tonight, as well as for the Latin American opponents they have already put away by margins of 50-points or more throughout the tournament.
But the fact remains that the U.S. comes into the game having outscored its opponents by over 140 points more than Canada, its next closest competitor. In just four games, the Americans have racked up 440 points, failing to break the century mark in only one game, against Argentina, whom they nonetheless defeated by a 60-point margin, 93-33. Canada is doing quite nicely, thank you very much, with a total of 299 points over the four games it has played, but has yet to break the 100-point mark, having come even close only once, against Guatemala, whom they defeated, 97-22. In the rest of their games, the Canadian's scores have hovered around the 66-68 mark more commonly associated with women's and girls' basketball.
A win is a win, of course. But what makes these statistics all the more interesting is that the Americans have accomplished this scoring orgy while focusing primarily on defense, an area in which they have likewise been successful. The U.S. has held its opponents to a total of just 141 points, for an average of 35 points per game. The Canadians have achieved the second-most rigorous defense, giving up 183 points thus far, or an average of 45.7 points per game. Not only is that 10 points per game more than the Americans, but it makes for a margin of victory of nearly 75 points per game for the U.S., as opposed to a narrower, though still decisive, 29 points-and-change, for the Canadians.
One might chalk up the difference in results to the luck of the draw, had one team found itself in a markedly stronger or weaker pool than the other. But when you take the two victors -- the U.S. and Canada-- out of the equation, the two pools have stacked up quite comparably. Each has had a strong, though not dominant, second contender -- in the case of Canada's Pool A, that would be Brazil, and in Team USA's Pool B, Argentina -- plus two much weaker sisters -- Mexico and Guatemala in Pool A and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in Pool B.
The real proof of the pudding is in the two games in which the U.S. and Canada have had shared opponents. Team USA took down Brazil, the second-place finisher from Pool A, in yesterday's semifinal by a 105-54 margin. Canada managed only a 12-point differential in its 68-56 preliminary-round win over the Brazilians. Conversely, though Argentina was the one team thus far to have held the U.S. to under 100, Team USA still breezed by them with a 93-33 win. Meanwhile, Canada had to work hard to make its way out of last night's semifinal with a 66-59 "W" over the Argentines.
The point of all this is not to establish a betting line for tonight's game -- one will have to search hard for anyone willing to take even long odds on the Canadians -- but rather to reflect upon the prospects of continuing U.S. dominance in the international women's game.
Why is the U.S. so dominant in women's basketball, even at the U16 level? Is international parity on the women's side even a remote prospect in the foreseeable future?
One of the factors that has helped propel the United States to international dominance on the women's side has been the NCAA -- America's rich network of universities, colleges, and below the NCAA-level, junior colleges affords hundreds, even thousands, of young women a four-year training ground in which to develop their talents against high-level competition. It also allows national team selection committees ample opportunities to scout and to cull from the very cream of the crop.
Many other countries have a more limited offering of universities with athletic programs to choose from, and while some, such as Australia, boast national academies devoted primarily, if not exclusively, to the training and development of athletes, this still limits the fields of competition against which these athletes will test and hone their skills.
But wouldn't one expect to find a more even playing field at the high-school level where the benefits of the NCAA's multiple divisions and conferences have yet to kick in? Most countries have a plethora of secondary schools, any one of which can throw up two nets and offer the chance for young women to learn to play basketball.
This correspondent spoke with Jan Sterling, then the coach of the Australian women's national team, about the questions of U.S. dominance and barriers to international parity shortly after the Americans had snatched the gold from her team yet again at the Beijing Olympics. One factor, we agreed, was size -- and not just the height of the players, though that is clearly part of the issue, but also the size of the country.
Heights over six feet in women remain something of a genetic anomaly, and so does raw athletic talent. Practice, coaching and other elements can make a modestly talented player an extremely good one, and without them, even the greatest of talents will never fulfill their maximum potential, but anyone who has spent even a modicum of time around a basketball court will tell you that once in a very great while there comes along a kid with a truly extraordinary natural proclivity for the game. If a talent the likes of a Teresa Edwards, a Lisa Leslie, a Diana Taurasi, a Candace Parker -- or Brazil's Hortensia Maria de Fatima Marcari or Australia's Lauren Jackson -- is truly one in a million, then it helps to have a demographic pool of several hundred millions from which to draw. Otherwise, any country may find itself once in a generation or two with a supernova of great magnitude on its national team, but that star is likely to be surrounded by quite ordinary players, rendering it difficult for the team to win, much less dominate or think about dynasties.
With a population of nearly 304 million, the United States, the third most populous country in the world after China and India (both over a billion), has a rich talent pool from which to draw in search of those genetic rarities of height and talent. Only one other country in the Americas (Brazil, with a population of nearly 192 million) even ranks in the top 10.
Still, while genes are clearly a factor, population alone can't account for all of the success enjoyed by the Americans. Of the nations in the top 10, only one, Russia, can be described as a major basketball power. Though Brazil and China, once atop the heap, are again showing signs of strength, no one would describe India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria (who feature tall players, but is still in its naissance in basketball) or Japan as major threats on the court.
Coach Nelson expects the Canadians to give her team the stiffest competition they have faced thus far, and is focused on preparing her girls for a tough 40 minutes of basketball. In Canada (37th among the world's nations in population with a little over 33 million residents), Nelson is quick to point out, the U.S. will face the first team "that will really have the same size," with four players -- forward Lexie Der (6-0, St. Thomas More High School, Burnaby, British Columbia), forward/center Jory McDonald (6-1, Regiopolis-Notre Dame, Kingston, Ontario), and two 6-3 centers Alexandria Kiss-Rusk (John Rennie High School, Baie d' Urfe, Quebec) and Shalie Dheensaw (Claremont Secondary School, Victoria, British Columbia) -- standing six feet or more and another four zeroing in on the six-foot mark, at 5-11.
That, in turn, enables Canada to challenge the U.S. with the first real high-low post game the Americans have seen in the tournament, says Nelson. "They have a very good high-low game," Nelson stated in summing up her scouting report on the competition. "It will be the first time that we've seen that. ... Most of the foreign teams do not have a post presence."
The Cadettes most certainly do, particularly in the inside presence of Dheensaw, whom Nelson describes as not only a "rebound magnet," but also a "very-good 15-foot shooter," who "buries you in the low post." Dheensaw ranks fourth in the tournament in rebounding, with 30 boards through just three of Canada's four games. (FIBA Americas has yet to post the box score or statistics after Canada's semifinal last night against Argentina.) Even so, Dheensaw is averaging 10 boards per game, on a par with Mexico's Maria Faz Davalos, who tops the leaderboard.
Still, it would be an overstatement to say that the Canadians "match" the Americans in height. Ten of the U.S. players measure six feet or better. Only the two point guards -- Ariel Massengale (5-6) and Alexia Standish (5-8) stand any shorter.
Nelson also had high praise for the passing game of Canada's top scorer, 5-7 guard Nirra Fields of Lower Canada College, Lachine, Quebec. Fields is currently ranked fourth in the tournament, with 50 points, by FIBA Americas, but again, that is only through three games. On a per game basis, Fields has averaged 16.7 points per game, besting even the United States's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who ranks first with 58 points in four games (14.5 per game).
Coach Nelson attributed her own team's overwhelming success in this tournament in part to defense. "Defense really triggers the offense," she explains, "not just with steals and run outs.... It gets our juices going [when we've got] our rotations are working and we get deflections. And the energy on the defensive end transfers to energy on a lot of our scoring."
U.S. forward/center Elizabeth Williams (Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach, Virginia) agreed. "I would probably credit it to our defense," she says of her team's impressive pounding of the teams they have met on their way to the goal-medal game. "That's what we've been focusing on; it's been what all the coaches have been emphasizing."
Williams said the players have a good idea of the fierce competition they'll be up against in Canada. "We've gotten the scouting report from our coaches. [We're expecting] a good high-low game.... Their post players are very strong, [and we'll have to defend against] their back-door play."
|Photo Caption: U.S. forward/center Elizabeth Williams, of Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has averaged 12 points and 4.8 rebounds per game throughout the tournaments. Still, she credits defense and mutual trust among her teammates for Team USA's dominating victories over the opponents they have met thus far.|
Coach Nelson also attributes their success to her team's depth, one through 12. "The Committee did a super job of picking a great group of kids," she says, enthusiastically describing how well her players have come together in such a short time. "They've bought in and want to be good -- they want to be good as a team, not just as individuals," she said.
It is that depth, in addition to height and defense, that has enabled her players to sail through the tournament averaging better than 100 points per game. Their opponents thus have often been "four-man teams ... able to match us for four minutes or so." But unlike the Americans, they tend to suffer when forced to substitute.
"Brazil gave us a great run," Nelson cited as an example. "You'll probably ask me, 'Well Coach, how can you say that? You beat them by 50 points.'" (Fifty-one to be exact, 105-54.)
"But the first quarter, it was 21-20," she pointed out. "In that time, we had subbed in 10 kids.... By the second quarter, we were able to bring in fresh legs." The rest, as they say, is history.
Canada, said Nelson, is a deeper team, with eight, nine, or 10 players they can turn to, several of them able to go off for a double-digit scoring outing if an opponent manages to shut down Fields or Dheensaw. Still, Nelson expects once again to turn to her depth to help the U.S. prevail.
"We don't lose anything when we rest our starters," she stated. Without stating the obvious -- that other teams, even the Canadians, do -- she added, "We want to run, we want to defend, we want to make them play faster than they want to play."
To that, U.S. high scorer Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis of Anaheim, California's Mater Dei High School would add her team's chemistry. "Our team has actually got great chemistry. We've got a common goal to get to the gold-medal game. ... Wanting to win as a team has helped us to share the ball more."
Asked to name her own team's standouts, Nelson initially demurred. "That's hard," she said. "We preach so hard to the kids about team, that you win as a team, not as an individual. So it's hard to turn around and name an individual who really stood out."
But when pressed on the subject, Nelson pointed to a Ariel Massengale (Bollingbrook High School, Bollingbrook, Illinois), a player whose stats, while impressive, haven't made her the highlight player of any given game. Massengale has quietly averaged 13.3 points per game over the course of the tournament, shooting 45 percent (9/20) from the field and an impressive 66.7 percent (10/15) from beyond the arc. Massengale has also pulled down an average of just over four boards per game, and dished out a team-high 4.5 assists per game (to a mere 0.5 turnovers). She's also grabbed seven steals over the past four games. But Nelson didn't point to any of those statistics, pointing instead to intangibles and to the total package.
"She's been the 'steady-Eddie quarterback on the floor," said Nelson. "She's got a calm head," and strong leadership, Nelson added. "And her efficiency rating is extremely high.... Quiet as it has seemed, you'd have to call it dominant guard play."
|Photo Credit: Despite her 23-point contribution to Team USA's semifinal win over Brazil, Coach Barbara Nelson singles out Bolingbrook High School (Illinois)'s Ariel Massengale not for her scoring but for her calm head and "steady-Eddie" quarterbacking of the team. "Dominant guard play," is how Nelson depicts Massengale's game.|
Nelson then ticked off a list of other huge contributors. "Breanna Stewart has come into her own.... Elizabeth Williams.... Justine Hartman, coming off an injury." (Hartman's practice minutes had been limited due to soreness from something that happened previously, said Nelson. "So you don't know what to expect. She's done a fabulous job. She's given us as many minutes as we needed from her, and asked for more.")
The list went on. "Betnijah Laney ... Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. You know about her 24-point scoring [against Brazil], but she had nine rebounds [against Argentina]. I'd be remiss not to mention Alexyz [Vaioletama]." Even Bashaara Graves, named as a substitute after a knee injury to Bolingbrook High School's Morgan Tuck has more than proved her worth. "She's been right in there every game," said Nelson. "Really, it's just been everybody."
So what, in Nelson's opinion, accounts for the kind of depth and dominance the United States enjoys at all levels in women's basketball?
"It's not really a more balanced playing field," even at the high school level, she said. She pointed to three major factors that give the United States an edge.
"We do have a good feeder system." Not every country offers basketball at the middle school and even at the elementary school levels, as is the case in many areas of the United States, she explained.
"We also have a very organized AAU system," Nelson added, something young athletes do not enjoy in many other countries. "Those two developmental opportunities account for a lot [of what you're seeing in terms of the U.S. dominance in Mexico City.]"
Then you can't rule out the benefits of the U.S. collegiate system, which affords opportunities, even at the high school level, for athletes to attend elite camps and have a goal to which they can look forward, said Nelson. Taken together, these three factors give America an advantage in skills development, that when added to the size of its population, promise a bright future for many years to come.
These advantages have not been lost on the teenage athletes that make up the American team. Asked what she's drawn for her own game from the experiencing of playing for the U.S. National Team, Mosqueda-Lewis immediately pointed to the opportunity of "playing against all these girls from different countries. They all play with so much heart. When they step on the court, it's all they're thinking about."
The attitude she's seen among her foreign competitors has caused Mosqueda-Lewis to reflect upon the advantages and opportunities she might previously have taken for granted as an American ball player. "We need to cherish our experiences and our time on the court," she said. "It's made me grateful for the things I have in the U.S."
|Photo Caption: Team USA's high scorer, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis of Anaheim, California's Mater Dei High, has drawn a deeper gratitude for the opportunities enjoyed by American players after watching the heart with which her foreign competitors have played.|
Williams, too, radiated a sense of gratitude for her opportunities to play on the team. The greatest personal benefit she will take away from the experience is not just a possible gold medal, but "the time we've been spending with everyone," she stated. "We're not going to see them and play with them again for a while, ... so [it's been great to] take advantage of the time we have together." And the biggest thing she thinks she and her teammates have learned over their week in Mexico City, and the training camps beforehand: "Trusting each other."
It's attitudes like these that Nelson said has made this "a fabulous experience for me and all our coaches." If she had just one thing to leave with other Americans about her experience with this team, it is what a "great group of kids, this is -- they're not only good basketball players; they're just really great kids." If Full Court's readers "had an opportunity to even spend an hour together with our kids, they'd fall in love with them," said Nelson. "They're just really nice; they're very focused; they really come together. When they're silly, they're all being silly at the same time. When they're serious, they're all being serious together. ... They've just been great."
Great on and off the court -- that's a recipe for success in anyone's playbook.