U.S. Women Improving Rapidly

NEW YORK, September 11 -- When the U.S. Women's Senior National Team first convened on Friday night to beging practicing in New York City, there were a lot of questions about the make-up of the roster and the identity of the team. While many of those questions have yet to be answered, a team of elite athletes has grown and progressed quite smoothly in a short period of time.

"We have made improvements in finding the strengths and weaknesses of certain players and how they fit with each other," U.S. assistant coach Mike Thibault said.

After losing to Russia and finishing third in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, the U.S. must qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics like every other team and will begin that process in two weeks in Chile. Attempting to rectify the mistakes made last year, the team has focused on its defense in these first few training days.

"Our problem against Russia was defense," Washington Mystics veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "That is what cost us that win and is what ultimately cost us a gold medal in the World Championships. This whole week has totally been on defense. Every aspect of the word defense we've covered."

The good news is that they are ready to declare their week-long focus a success.

"We have improved defensively," Thibault said. "Our rebounding has been good and we have done a good job of blocking out."

Yet on the flip side, there remains significant room for improvement on the offensive end.

"Offensively we need the most work, taking care of the basketball and completing our offenses," Storm coach and USA coach Anne Donovan said.

The team now heads to Philadelphia for a few more days of practice to get things right before taking on Australia in Trenton on Sunday afternoon. It will be the public's first chance to see what the U.S. players have been working on. With a number of players new to the teams, many of these elite athletes are playing together for the first time. But as team chemistry continues to evolve, so will the team's play.

"I think we are getting our chemistry down," Liberty center Jessica Davenport said. Coach has been changing up the teams so we get to play with different people. Overall, people are learning to play with each other better."

Some of the biggest buzz and excitement centers on the four college athletes currently in camp (Candace Paker, Sylvia Fowles, Candice Wiggins and Courtney Paris). With so many youngsters taking the court veteran leadership, has been highly beneficial in jump starting the first week of USA basketball practice.

"I have learned so much from these athletes in these five days than I have ever learned in my entire life. It's crazy," Stanford senior Candice Wiggins remarked after a grueling Tuesday morning practice.

The time spent in New York has been productive, but everyone is waiting and closely watching the 2007 WNBA Finals. Upon completion, anywhere from four to six participants will immediately join the U.S. team. But don't worry about how they will fit into the mix when they return.

"Most of those players have played with this team before and they understand our system," Donovan said. "The difficult thing is there is not a lot of training time to get adjusted, but since they have good experience that transition period will be short."

Whether or not the Finals participants make it from Phoenix in a few days or have to make a stop off in Detroit for Game 5 of the Finals, the U.S. roster for the two Australia games on September 16th and 19th will be an expanded version of what we will see at the FIBA Americas tournament in Chile. There are no roster requirements for the two exhibition games against Lauren Jackson and the 2006 World Championships.

"We play those games to use them as a testing ground for what we are doing," Thibault said. "It's good to play against someone else rather than ourselves."

But with just several days of training underneath their belt, will they be ready?

"We are always ready to compete and see where we are," says Sacramento's Kara Lawson. "It's going to be great to really see how far we have come."