|On Saturday morning, at 9 a.m. local time in Athens, it
all begins. When Australia and Nigeria take the floor at the Helliniko
Indoor Complex, 12 nations will embark upon their quest for gold in
the Women's Olympic Basketball competition.
As we have seen with the men's international game over
the past few years, nothing is guaranteed. But while the Olympic men's
hoops competition has never been more wide open, the women's game should
come down to a only a handful
of contending countries. The U.S. squad is seen as the favorite to
win it all, but with the increased experience and exposure of players
from Australia, Russia and Brazil, the Americans are by no means a lock
to bring home the gold.
When It Still Didn't Count
If the recent FIBA
Diamond Ball competition is any indication, the
Australians could be the United States' stiffest competition. Diamond
Ball is an invitational tournament organized by FIBA, a few weeks prior
to the Olympics and displaying the best teams of each continent. It serves
as the final warm up for 6 of the 12 teams that will participate in Olympic
Games in Athens. Australia outlasted the Chinese, 74-70 in the championship
match. Australia has several legit WNBA players, including the reigning
league MVP, forward Lauren
Elena Baranova, Russia
Despite losing in the finals of Diamond Ball tournament,
China had an impressive run, defeating Brazil and Nigeria in their opening
matches. With former (and future?) WNBA star Janeth
Arcain, Brazil is also a medal contender in Athens. The Brazilians
defeated Greece, the host nation, to finish a disappointing third
place in the tournament. Rounding out the places, Korea
beat Nigeria 89-78 for fifth place.
In what came as somewhat of a surprise to basketball experts,
team announced their roster earlier this week, and veteran Minnesota Lynx
Abrosimova was not a member of the team. However, the defending European
champions have more than enough star power to pose a threat to the Americans
and Australians. The Russians are the only other country (as the U.S.S.R.
and Unified Team) to win a gold medal in women's basketball aside from
the United States. New York Liberty center Elena Baranova will captain
the Russian team in Athens
Yet another team with considerable international experience
and a strong, deep veteran team is the Czech Republic. Despite not having
Storm forward Kamila
Vodichkova on the roster, don't
discount the European Championship runners-up. In back-to-back games
against Australia recently, the Czechs actually won
the first game before dropping
the second to the Jackson and Taylor-less Aussies.
In other pre-Olympic action, the Tall
Ferns of New Zealand, runners-up to Australia in the Oceania region,
defeated Romania in a friendly exhibition. New Zealand over Romania. Unlike their neighbors, the team from New Zealand wears standard two-piece uniforms. And talk about achieving goals, at least the Ferns have a realistic one...
Two If By Sea
But it will all come down to the Americans. If they play
their best, they will not lose. Winners of the last two Olympic gold medals
and four of the seven awarded in women's Olympic basketball history, the
States women finished its 2004 exhibition season a perfect 16-0. Made
up of some of the best WNBA players, the U.S. topped
a team of WNBA All-Stars at Radio City Music Hall on August 5.
Dawn Staley, USA
The Americans then travel to Salamanca, Spain to compete
in a tournament with Olympics-bound Spain, Poland and France. In the first
game, the U.S. topped
the French, 68-38. In the finals against Spain, the U.S.
topped the host nation, 77-61. U.S. Team captain Dawn Staley was also
chosen by the captains of all other American teams to carry
the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies on Fridau night.
Former Olympian and analyst Ann
Meyers is staying on the same boat as the American teams, the behemoth
Queen Mary II
in the harbor.
"The Russians have looked pretty good, I haven't seen
the Aussies yet, and Brazil's Janeth Arcain missed the last game at the
Diamond Bowl. China scrimmaged Greece yesterday and Greece won by 12?
China had just gotten in, so they were tired. USA still looks like the
favorite. Some people are calling THEM the "Dream Team" of Athens, not
the American men."
In case you are one of those people who puts a lot of
stock in numbers and rankings, the final
FIBA World Rankings for women leading into the Olympic tournament
has the United States comfortably on top. On the strength of their European
Championships win, the Russians are No. 2. But Australia and Brazil are
right at their heels. Greece, the host nation, has the lowest ranking
of all 12 competitor nations, coming in at No. 36.
For complete Olympic results in all sports updated throughout the Games, check out NBC's comprehensive coverage.