A Priceless Lesson for USA Basketball

It was a known fact heading into Saturday afternoon’s game that the USA Basketball squad was not going to take the day’s events lightly. A huge fan turnout complete with scattered, bright yellow Stars at the Sun shirts may have given off the look of an All-Star game, and the pregame three-point shootout and skills competition may have alluded to the feel of an All-Star game, but this particular event was more than the typical East meets West matchup.

USA Basketball, by far one of the most elite units on the international scene, was set to put its pool of players to the test at Mohegan Sun Arena in a game that pinned them against the WNBA’s best and brightest players. Other countries have the liberty of practicing year round. For the US team, that is not the case. Therefore, its up to them as a whole to embrace any and every opportunity to iron out the wrinkles and make the most of any time spent together as a team.

For Saturday's game, the WNBA’s players filled all but one of the roster spots on both sides of the court, which opened up the possibility of teammates and former teammates playing on the same side. The lone exception was USA Basketball hopeful and University of Connecticut senior Maya Moore, but even she has experience playing with former UConn teammates Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery, both members of the National pool.

The existing chemistry on the National Team, minute as it may be, allowed it to operate at a level higher than that which would exist between a group of All-Stars selected to play alongside one another one night per year. Plus, six of the 11 members of the USAB roster played for Auriemma at UConn, providing a sturdy foundation of players familiar his system. Unfortunately, the same dynamic didn't apply to the WNBA Stars.

“We were not prepared as a team,” said Atlanta Dream forward Iziane Castro Marques and member of the WNBA Stars. “We had great players, great talent but we can’t play as a team together. So when we go up against a team that already knows how to play against each other, it’s hard.”

The differences were obvious right from the start. The USA Basketball team rushed up and down the court with precise execution, darting around defenders and rushing through the lanes in textbook fashion. The WNBA Stars, a team that hardly had time to benefit from practicing together, was still trying to gain its footing. Surely it says a lot about having the time to prepare for an opponent, as opposed to adjusting on the fly.

As the teams rolled into the third quarter, columns on the box score stood out like evidence at a crime scene. USA Basketball accumulated 20 assists in the first two quarters, while the WNBA Stars tallied only three; a clear indication that USA Basketball was firing on all cylinders.

“Just an incredible number,” said USAB head coach Geno Auriemma of his team’s 32 total assists by game’s end. “To be able to spread the ball around like that, share and make the extra pass. All the things you would want to see the team do, and obviously we have a lot of work to do, but for the first time being with this group we have a chance to be pretty good.”

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Pregame Challenge
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Although the National Team went on to win by the final of 99-72, the real benefit lays beyond the box score for Auriemma and his crew.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t get any time together and don’t get to spend quality time, given the way the league and the season runs,” said Auriemma. “Something like this is extremely beneficial to us.”

"I think they are an extremely athletic team," said Indiana's Katie Douglas, who made her presence known as the winner of the three-point competition prior to joining the rest of the WNBA Stars for the game. "I was very impressed with their ball movement and how they played off of each other. They too have had limited time, but you can see that there is already some chemistry there. A lot of them played together in college. They have the UConn connection. I was just impressed with how unselfish they played and how well they played together."

The WNBA schedule resumes Sunday at 4:00 p.m. ET in a game between the Chicago Sky and New York Liberty. For those participating in the game at Madison Square Garden – Sylvia Fowles and Cappie Pondexter – it’s off to New York with the hopes of closing out the second half of the season on a high note. For the rest of the USAB Team, Sunday marks one last opportunity to test the water in a scrimmage against the Australia National Team.

"The one thing about the scrimmage that will probably be a little bit more beneficial (than Saturday) is that we’re actually playing a team, with plays, that have been together," said Seattle Storm guard and USA Basketball's Sue Bird. "This was some really good players, but just thrown together. [Sunday] will be different, but beneficial."

Then what? With the World Championships on schedule for the end of September, the US team will split in different directions for the next two months. When they reunite in the Fall, there will once again be little time to get everyone on the same page, especially when you consider the latest the WNBA season can go is September 21. The World Championship in the Czech Republic tips off on September 23.

“I think we all have players here with high basketball IQs,” said a confident Seimone Augustus, who sat out Saturday’s game against the WNBA Stars but will compete in Sunday’s scrimmage. “This little bit of time that we do have is very precious time, but at the same time once August and September hit I think we know we’re back to business.”

Simply put, the business of USA Basketball is winning. Any successful CEO will say that a concise, well thought out business plan will yield the highest results. To have the options available to test a game plan in a scrimmage or practice setting is far better than doing so in a position where losing one game at the wrong time can kick a team out of a tournament. Heading into Saturday’s game, coach Auriemma knew of a few areas he wanted to test out to better structure his business plan. Adequately filling the post position was one topic of concern, even though he had the six-foot-six Fowles to work with in the paint. But six-foot-six, while an impressive height for any post player, doesn’t translate to a system when it exists solely as a number on paper. But to see, implement and troubleshoot is where the true perception is gained.

“It's a big role that I have to take on,” said Fowles following her 23-point, eight-rebound MVP-honors game. “But at the same time I played under Lisa [Leslie] and Tina [Thompson] for a year to learn a couple of things. When you got great teammates like Diana to stay in your ear and get things done on the floor, I don't think you have no choice but to go out and compete to the best of your abilities every night.”

Coach Auriemma may not have resolved every concern with just this one game. However, going up against the WNBA Stars certainly allowed him to check off or perhaps even add a few more to his to-do list.

It was a lesson learned for USA Basketball, a tough day for the WNBA Stars but an overall rewarding day for the league and its fans. There may have been one winner on the court Saturday, but as coach Auremma said in his postgame conference, it was “the WNBA versus the WNBA” and “Us against Us.”

Does that mean everybody wins?
More »

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