Rumors of USA’s Demise Exaggerated

Nov. 07: USA Basketball Working Toward Beijing
StormTracker: Olympic Preparation
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Kevin Pelton, | August 1, 2008
With a little over a week until play begins, the stories previewing the women's basketball competition at the 2008 Olympics in general and the U.S. Olympic team specifically have already begun piling up. Generally speaking, these stories share a similar theme: The USA, once dominant in the international women's basketball arena, is looking to reprove itself after faltering over the last two years. It's a compelling storyline. I'm just not entirely convinced it's an accurate one.

For the most part, the perception of the USA's decline stems from a single game - a 75-68 loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Brazil, which not only denied the U.S. the gold in that competition (having won Bronze, the U.S. women had to qualify for the Olympics last fall as FIBA Americas champs) but also brought the team's 50-game winning streak in major international competition to an end. The USA had last lost in the semifinals of the 1994 World Championships before embarking on a streak of three straight Olympic gold medals and two World Championships without a blemish along the way.

As monumental as Russia's win was, it is a key tenet of statistical analysis that reading too much into the outcome of a single game can be dangerous at best and foolish at worst. Looking deeper at the numbers, it is not clear that the 2006 U.S. squad was flawed so much as a team that had a bad day at the wrong time against a good opponent.

Consider that, in the bronze-medal game, the U.S. women faced a Brazil squad that led eventual gold medalists Australia after three quarters in the other semifinal matchup. Despite the home-court advantage enjoyed by the host nation, the U.S. crushed Brazil 99-59 in that game. The win was one of six by 30 or more points for the USA in the World Championships. Per 100 possessions, the U.S. women outscored their opposition by 34.7 points - far superior to Australia's +27.3 differential and in fact better than the +31.8 margin enjoyed by the U.S. during the Athens Olympics.

Besides Brazil and Russia, the U.S. and the Australian Opals had only one other common opponent in Brazil, both facing France. The USA crushed France 79-46 in pool play, while Australia earned a much narrower 79-66 victory in the quarterfinals.

There's been talk this week out of the U.S. training camp at Stanford University about the importance of defense, the apparent Achilles' heel in Brazil. Yet the numbers show the USA to have dominated with defense during the World Championships, surrendering just 75.0 points per 100 possessions. That was far and away the best Defensive Rating of any team in the competition (Australia allowed 88.8 points per 100 possessions to rank second) and even stingier than the U.S. women were in Athens, when they posted an 81.0 Defensive Rating.

So should the U.S. women begin planning where to display their gold medals this time around? Not just yet. While the evidence doesn't suggest the USA slipping significantly between 2004 and 2006, it also indicates that the notion of U.S. invincibility prior to the 2006 World Championships is a myth. The striking 50-game winning streak hid how close the competition was to the U.S. women by the Athens Olympics, if not previously.

This might be nothing more than the tricks of memory. Until I happened to watch the end of the gold-medal game On Demand from Comcast recently, I had forgotten that Australia actually led that game late in the third quarter. In hindsight, because the U.S. women always escaped with victories, it seems like they were never challenged. The reality is different.

In Athens, the numbers for the Australian Opals and the USA are very similar. The U.S. enjoyed a slight advantage in Offensive Rating (111.9 vs. 109.2) and Defensive Rating (81.0 vs. 84.9, where lower is better), but the teams were close enough that if the gold-medal game were replayed 10 times, surely the Aussies would have come out victorious at least once. Australia was even better in the World Championships, with Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor leading an offense far more efficient than the USA's.

Because the Russians treat pool play as an opportunity for scouting and experimentation before raising their level of play in the medal rounds, their overall statistics are relatively meaningless. However, Russia came close to ending the USA's winning streak long before Brazil. Their semifinal matchup in the 2004 Olympics was decided by four points and was a two-point game inside the final five minutes. The Russians were just as close in the deciding game of the 2002 World Championships, trailing by one late in the game and losing by five.

Lisa Leslie and Sylvia Fowles strengthen the U.S. in the post.
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
Both Australia and Russia have bolstered their roster since Brazil. The Opals will get back Suzy Batkovic, the former Storm center who started in Athens but missed the World Championships after undergoing sinus surgery. Meanwhile, Russia is without pregnant guard Olga Artehsina but came up with an experienced replacement in naturalized San Antonio Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon, last year's runner-up in WNBA MVP voting.

The U.S., Australia and Russia are the class of the Olympics, especially with Brazil, the fourth semifinalist in the last Olympics and World Championships, having lost several veterans. Brazil will be without legendary Janeth Arcain, now retired, and former Storm forward Iziane Castro Marques because of a quarrel with Head Coach Paulo Bassul. Still, the competition is improving. Host China figures to present a challenge under veteran Olympic Head Coach Tom Maher, who coached Australia in 1996 and 2000 and New Zealand in 2004. China defeated a half-strength U.S. squad in the Good Luck Beijing Tournament in Beijing in April.

Countries like China may benefit from the USA no longer carrying the same psychological edge that came with the team's lengthy winning streak. In the past, U.S. Head Coach Anne Donovan has estimated that advantage at five to 10 points. If Australia and Russia were ever affected, however, it wasn't evident from their matchups against the U.S., so that doesn't figure to be a major issue by the medal rounds.

While the other top teams have added to their lineups, so too has the U.S., which welcomes back starting center Lisa Leslie after she missed the 2006 World Championships for personal reasons. A member of the last three Olympic gold medalist squads, Leslie brings invaluable leadership to a team that has lost veterans Dawn Staley (now an assistant coach) and Sheryl Swoopes from the Athens mix.

Even more important will be Leslie's play in the post, a weak spot for the USA in 2006, when Michelle Snow was the only WNBA center on the roster. A deep reserve, Snow played only two minutes against Russia's mammoth frontline of 6-8 Maria Stepanova and 6-5 Tatiana Shchegoleva. With Leslie and 6-6 Sylvia Fowles on the roster, the U.S. is better equipped to match up with the Russians. Leslie will also give the team post scoring that was missing in 2006 and could have helped when the USA's jumpshots were not falling during most of the loss to Russia, as the team totaled just 38 points in the first three quarters. The smaller U.S. roster was also responsible for the team rebounding only 35.7 percent of its own misses in the World Championships, down from a stunning 50.7 percent in the Olympics.

Where do the U.S. women stand heading to Beijing? Share your thoughts by commenting on the StormTracker blog.
The challenge for Donovan will be integrating a group of players that is playing together for the first time. Nine of the 12 U.S. players were on the roster for last fall's FIBA Americas Championships, but Leslie is a major addition to that group. Between various tournaments and tours during the winter and spring, five players have played at least 18 games in the USA uniform over the last year. However, at no point during that stretch did the U.S. have more than six of its Olympians on the roster together at one time. It's little surprise that the makeshift squads occasionally stumbled against lesser but better-organized competition.

Entering the Olympics, the U.S. deserves to be considered the favorites, but Australia and Russia are close enough to take advantage of any slip-up in the all-important medal rounds and it is not completely unthinkable that the USA might lose in group play even though both other contenders are in the other pool. If the U.S. women extend their streak to four straight gold medals, they will have earned it.

"I know that, as a team, it's going to be a challenge. We got beat in the World Championships," says Storm point guard Sue Bird. "Everybody's talking about every other country besides us. I'm excited for that. It's going to be very rewarding to hopefully be standing at the end with a gold medal around my neck."