Posted by Matt Wurst on Aug. 12 2004 12:35 p.m. ET


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

Elena Baranova, Russia
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 Jackson.

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, the Russian team announced their roster earlier this week, and veteran Minnesota Lynx forward Svetlana 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

Dawn Staley, USA
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 United 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.

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."

Number Crunching

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.