No1 Draft Pick Olympic Preview – Women’s Basketball
As they have been for the past four Olympiads, the Australian Opals head to Rio as warm medal favourites and are a better than outside chance at the gold medal. Anything can happen of course at the Olympics, but the reality is that anything other than an Australia-US showdown for it all would be a surprise.
And you know something? That expectation is amazing, when you stop to think about it.
What’s amazing is how much we take this remarkable group for granted. With that small population and smaller pool of talent to call upon, the Opals have managed, year after to year, to be a dominant force in women’s basketball.
It’s not a recent phenomenon either. This is something that has been building for the best part of two decades now, from a fourth place finish in the 1988 Seoul Olympics that included a shocking win over then superpower USSR to another fourth place at the 1994 World Championships in Sydney and then their first ever Olympic medal in Atlanta in 1996.
Incredibly, this team has never been off the Olympic podium since, winning five straight medals.
It’s an achievement that should be celebrated perhaps more than it is, considering the level of competition this team has to face internationally. From a team perspective, not one other Australian women’s team has to go through so many tough opponents on a regular basis in both Olympic and World competition.
And yet, despite having to compete with the likes of netball, tennis, swimming and golf for the best athletes at a junior level, Australian women’s basketball has continued this great tradition of success, which is an enormous credit to the coaching that has been done to develop enough quality ballplayers over many years.
Of course, it’s helped that we were blessed to have Lauren Jackson pulling on the green and gold. The flag bearer for the Australian team at the 2012 London Olympics was unquestionably one of, if not THE greatest female player of all time, and she was the foundation of a team that always gave itself a chance to win Olympic gold.
But she’s not the only one. From the great Robyn Maher, the irrepressible Michelle Timms, ahead of her time Trish Fallon and dependable Rachel Sporn, not to mention Shelly Sandie, Karen Dalton and Michelle Brogan right through to this talented Opals generation, there have been an incredible number of outstanding female athletes to wear their nation’s colours with pride.
Sadly, LJ retired this year, and she leaves not only a remarkable legacy, but a hole that can never be adequately filled. But the Opals are lucky to have another dominant player to assume her mantle – Elizabeth Cambage.
Arguably the best post player in the world, the 6’8” Cambage was the first woman to ever dunk the ball in Olympic competition with her jam heard ’round the world in London, and is the one player on the Opals squad that even the mighty Americans have trouble dealing with.
The thing about Liz is not only her size, but also her mobility. She has remarkable quickness and athleticism for someone that big, and she is an automatic double team in the low block because there is simply no one in the world who can isolate on her.
35 year old Penny Taylor will captain the Opals for the final time in these Olympics having announced recently that she will retire after the games, and in many ways she’s been Robin to LJ’s Batman for over a decade. A do-everything ballplayer with the ability to impact both ends of the floor, Taylor’s greatest assets are her intelligence and work ethic. Even in her declining years, she is vital to the fortunes of this team.
Former WNBA Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell is the team’s chief playmaker, a 5’6” dynamo with extreme quickness who had 18 points for the Opals in their recent 104-89 loss to the United States in an exhibition game held at Madison Square Garden in New York. She’s tough as nails and runs the team very well.
Cayla George and Marianna Tolo provide good size and depth up front, Erin Phillips has won a pair of WNBA titles and is capable of really filling it up when she gets going, and veterans Laura Hodges and Rachel Jarry are experienced contributors.
Despite the surprising non-selection of stalwart Suzy Batkovic and the overall youthful nature of the squad, there’s little doubt the Opals remain a powerhouse unit and deserve their status as serious medal contenders.
Australia headlines Group A and opens Olympic competition with a big test first up against the home nation Brazil at 6:30am AEST on Sunday 7 August, a team with whom they’ve had some huge battles over the years. WNBA player Erika de Souza will go up against Cambage in the low post while their veterans Adriana Moises and Kelly Santos will lead them in front of what will be an intense, sold-out crowd. This looms as a danger game for Australia and one they cannot take lightly.
Turkey is up next at 6:30am AEST Monday 8 August, and with a FIBA ranking of equal tenth will have a large mountain to climb to get past the second-ranked Opals. They have a veteran core and plenty of self-belief, but Australia blitzed them in the 2014 World Cup and should have few problems sweeping them aside this time.
A nation that has given the Opals trouble over the years is France, who they’ll meet at 1:15am AEST on Wednesday 10 August. Ranked fourth in the world and known for their well-structured halfcourt offence, the French have some players with the potential to bother Australia, especially explosive guard Celine Dumerc. Head Coach Brendan Joyce will no doubt look to turn the throttle wide open and run France out of the gym in this one.
Look for a huge game from Liz Cambage when the Opals take on Japan at 6:45am AEST on Friday 12 August.
The Japanese literally have no one within cooee of the Australian centre size-wise and Liz is likely to have her way in the paint with whoever has the unfortunate task of trying to defend her. Offensively, Japan has tended to employ a bit of the chuck and duck strategy over the years with their severe reliance on the three point shot. Expect Coach Joyce to run his entire roster in this one as the Opals dispatch the Japanese with relative ease.
Australia’s final opponent in the group stage, Belarus – who they face at 1:15am AEST on Sunday 14 August – is at their first Olympics since 2008.
Naturalised American, guard Lindsey Harding, has WNBA experience and needs to be shut down, but after her, there’s not much depth in the Belarussian squad and the Opals should deal with them without too many problems.
In Group B, it begins and ends with the five-time defending Olympic champions the United States of America, who on paper are sending one of their strongest teams in years to Rio.
Like their male counterparts, the US is blessed from an embarrassment of riches. From superstar guard, 6’5” Elena Delle Donne, to 6’8” uber-centre Brittany Grenier, legendary floor leader Sue Bird, four-time NCAA champion Breanna Stewart and a swingman in Diana Taurasi who some American judges believe is the greatest female basketball player in history, the US team is loaded and comes at you in waves.
Their extraordinary depth is what sets them apart from every other team in this tournament, including the Opals, who gave them all they could handle in that recent exhibition game in New York yet still fell 15 points short. It will take something historic to beat a team that is currently riding a 42 game winning streak in the Olympic Games.
As with the men, Spain is the biggest threat to the US women, at least in this group, based on their ranking of three in the world, but it’s drawing a long bow to suggest the Spanish have the firepower to get within 20 points of the Americans in a head-to-head matchup.
Canada, China, Serbia and Senegal make up the rest of Group B, and based on rankings the Canadians and Chinese would be favoured to progress alongside Spain and US to the knockout rounds.
No1 Draft Pick wishes both the Boomers and the Opals well on their quest for Olympic Gold, and especially to Opals Assistant Coach and No1 Draft Pick Elite Coach Damian Cotter, who becomes an Olympian for the first time. The company is extremely proud of Coach Cotter and his achievement and is right behind him as he joins the special club of people who have represented their country at the ultimate – the Olympic Games.