Inside The W with Michelle Smith

The U.S. Women’s National Team – the best collection of women’s basketball players on one roster in the world – has arrived in Rio for the Olympics.

This collection of WNBA stars has flown south to dominate, to take home their sixth straight gold medal, a historic run of success matched only by the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team that stood on the gold medal podium between 1936 and 1968.

Led by three-time gold medalists Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings, the USA will be overwhelming favorites in Rio.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of interesting questions surrounding this remarkable group of players and their quest.

Is this the last go-round for Bird, Taurasi and Catchings?
Since Catchings is on the verge of retiring after her legendary WNBA career, the safe answer is yes. But, at this point in their careers, Bird (who is 35) and Taurasi (who is 34) still have plenty of game left. Bird has not played overseas in the past couple of years after a series of injuries and is having her most productive WNBA season since 2012. Taurasi is still among the top players in the world, who doesn’t seem to have lost any of her competitive edge.

Both are still relishing the experience, with a hint of acknowledgment that this could be the last go.

“As far as being my fourth Olympics, I’m going to treat it like my first, I really am,” Taurasi said. “I’m going to get there and enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy the whole experience. I always talk about my favorite memory of my Olympics is when you’re coming down that tunnel with all American athletes and you can’t wait to get back in that tunnel. Because that’s an amazing feeling to represent your country when you walk out there.”

“Now that it is kind of on the horizon and we will be in Rio soon, you don’t want to take too many opportunities to get sentimental,” Bird said. “You want to just enjoy the moment, enjoy the process, but I am excited that it is my fourth. In a lot of ways, I just want to really make the most of it and, again, enjoy every moment.”

Both Bird and Taurasi will be pushing 40 by the time the 2020 Games take place. And in the women’s basketball universe, that’s a lot more basketball. But one more Olympics cycle would allow Bird and Taurasi to match Teresa Edwards as five-time Olympians. Still, maybe we should watch extra close as these legends close out some of the most successful Olympic careers ever.

Who could be the breakout Olympic star from this team?
The leading candidate would seem to be Elena Delle Donne. The 2015 WNBA MVP will be playing in her first Olympics along with fellow first-timers Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart. But Delle Donne, who may be be coming off the bench for the Americans, has a long resume with USA Basketball dating back to high school. In the four exhibition games that serve as a run-up to Rio, Delle Donne averaged 13 points per game. Her versatility will be key for a U.S. team that already has size, speed and athleticism to spare.

Can anyone end the U.S. team’s 41-game Olympic win streak?
The American team has gone undefeated in the Olympics since settling for bronze way back in 1992, before Breanna Stewart was even born.

The Australians have long been considered the second-best team in the world and have a bevy of familiar WNBA faces, including Penny Taylor, Erin Phillips and Liz Cambage. But the U.S. team has defeated the Aussies seven straight times, including gold medal-winning games in 2000, 2004 and 2008, and are coming off a 104-89 win at Madison Square Garden in their final exhibition game.

Spain has only one player – Marta Xargay – who is currently on a WNBA roster. Anna Cruz had a successful season as a reserve for the league champion Minnesota Lynx last year. The Spaniards, who qualified with a quarterfinal win in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, are familiar with the U.S. players from their summers in the WNBA. France reached the gold-medal game in 2012 and posted a 3-0 record in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in June.

All will be underdogs, there is no doubt.

Is the U.S. team too dominant?
Ugh, this again? It’s tough to say that any team is too good. And nobody knows this conversation better than U.S. Women’s National Team coach Geno Auriemma, who has to be sick to death of it after his experience at Connecticut.

Auriemma called the U.S. women’s team the most dominant Olympic team in history. It’s hard to argue. The USA has gone 56-1 in the Olympics since 1980. They won their games in London in 2012 by an average margin of 34 points. And they are far and away the deepest and most talented team in the field.

They are going for their sixth straight gold medal, but Auriemma knows better than anyone that it’s far from a foregone conclusion.

“You try to tell everyone that winning a gold medal isn’t easy,” Auriemma said after the exhibition win over Australia. “We have to work really, really hard to make it look the way we made it look today, and today wasn’t easy. Every year is different, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Will the U.S. team’s dominance impact the attention they get in Rio?
Maybe. The team seemed a bit overshadowed by the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team in London four years ago. And yet being a great team has never seemed to hurt the coverage of the men’s team.

Here’s hoping these ladies get the coverage, the attention, and the respect they deserve.