2008 Olympic Basketball Tournament Preview
By Adam Hirshfield, WNBA.com

After winning their third straight gold in Athens, can Lisa Leslie and the USA make it four in a row in Beijing?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

NEW YORK, Aug. 6, 2008 -- With the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games just a day and a half away, it's time to take a closer look at the women's basketball competition, which tips off early Saturday. We also take a closer look at the 12 teams set to compete, with a little bit of guidance from a four-time gold medalist.


The 2008 Olympic Draw took place on April 26, 2008 in Beijing. The then-qualified teams -- along with several who still had to qualify in the 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women -- were split into two groups that will compete in preliminary round play from Aug. 9-17.

Group A and Group B stack up like this:

Group A Group B
Australia China
Belarus Czech Republic
Brazil Mali
Latvia New Zealand
South Korea Spain
Russia USA

Like all FIBA events, the Olympics begin with a round-robin preliminary round. Each team will play the other five teams in their group once. After those five games, the top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals and the bottom two are eliminated.

After that, it's a single-elimination (except that there's a third-place game for the bronze medal), eight-team tournament. The quarterfinals take place on Aug. 19, the semifinals on Aug. 21 and the medal games on Saturday, Aug. 23.

How the Olympic Tournament Works
Preliminary Round, 12 Teams - August 10-18
Format: Each team plays every team in their group once. The top four finishers in each group advance to the quarterfinal round.
Quarterfinal Round, 8 Teams - August 20
Format: Eight teams are seeded based on preliminary round finishes. Single elimination matchups take place between A1-B4, B1-A4, A2-B3 and B2-A3.
Semifinal Round, 4 Teams - August 22
Format: Winner of A1-B4 faces winner of B2-A3; winner of A2-B3 faces winner of B1-A4. The two victorious squads advance to the gold-medal game.
Final Round, 4 Teams - August 24
Format: Two winners in semifinal round compete for the gold, while the two losers compete in the bronze-medal game.


The following is a breakdown of each team, including comments from five-time U.S. Olympian (and four-time gold medalist) Teresa Edwards, who will be serving as an analyst for NBC during the Beijing Games:

Group A

FIBA World Ranking: 2

Key Players: Lauren Jackson, F/C, Seattle Storm; Penny Taylor, F, UMMC Ekaterinburg (Russia); Belinda Snell, G, Bourges Basket (France); Tully Bevilaqua, G, Indiana Fever; Suzy Batkovic, C, UMMC Ekaterinburg (Russia); Erin Phillips, G, Dandenong Jayco Rangers (Australia).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified automatically by winning gold at the 2006 World Championships.

The Skinny: Some consider the Opals to be the favorites heading into Beijing, especially after claiming the 2006 World Championship over Russia and the United States. And given their talent-filled roster which includes reigning WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson and 2007 WNBA champs Penny Taylor and Belinda Snell, it's tough to argue with them. Unlike the U.S. team, most of this roster has been playing together for years, and after winning bronze in Atlanta (1996) and silver medals in both Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), this could be the year for the Aussies.

Teresa Says: The U.S. just beat them in the Diamond Ball Tournament leading up to the Olympics, but I think they will be the Americans' toughest opponents in Beijing. They're in Group A, which is the tougher of the groups, but that could actually be to their advantage in helping them get up to a higher level of intensity prior to the knockout rounds. With their experience and with several players who are legitimate stars in the WNBA, I feel like they might just be in position to peak at the Olympic Games. They know that if they don't win gold in Beijing, they're never going to win it with this nucleus of players.

FIBA World Ranking: 30

Key Players: Yelena Leuchanka, C, UMMC Ekaterinburg (Russia); Marina Kress, C, Extragusa (Spain); Anastasiya Verameyenka, F/C, Nadezhda Orenburg (Russia); Tatyana Troina, G/F, Maccabi Ramat Hen (Israel).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified by winning quarterfinal game at 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifier Tournament.

The Skinny: Much like Latvia below, Belarus overcame both expectations and some fairly considerable odds to reach Beijing. Based on their ranking, they could end up being in over their heads in China. But an overtime win over Brazil in Madrid earned them this spot, and their strong, athletic frontcourt could surprise some folks.

Teresa Says: This is a team that has nothing to lose. They play with a Russian style and surprised a lot of people in even making it here, but they don't want it to end there. They want to surprise some teams. And they could, because they have some really big-bodied girls with some presence on the inside. Leuchanka, for one, is so physical and always gives you everything she has out there. I think they'll surprise someone in the early going, but they'll need to stay consistent to do it.

FIBA World Ranking: 4

Key Players: Kelly Santos, C, Seattle Storm; Mama, F/C, Villeneuve-d’Ascq (France); Adrianinha Moises-Pinto; Claudia Maria Das Neves, G, Stade Clermontois (France); Franciele, C, Zaragoza (Spain).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified by winning the losers' bracket playoff at 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifier Tournament.

The Skinny: Historically a skilled, athletic team that can get very hot at times, Brazil comes into Beijing ranked fourth in the world. Though they don't appear to have the talent of the late '80s and early 90s, they have played well historically in Olympic competition, earning a silver in Atlanta in 1996, a bronze medal in Sydney and fourth place in Athens. They also won the World Championship in 1994.

Big-time scorer Iziane Castro Marques was kicked off the team for a disagreement with coach Paulo Bassul at the Olympic qualifying tournament, and that removes some inner strife from the equation. But it also removes some scoring punch, and that's where the Brazilians will need to step up.

Teresa Says: Not having Iziane Castro Marques definitely hurts this bunch. But even without her, Brazil is an emotional team. Once they get on that rollercoaster, it seems like their shots can't miss. So this is a team that needs to be happy to play its best. They feed off each other very well and they're typically a quick group that likes to play a lot of up-and-down. But the whole situation with Izi leaving the team seems to have helped them band together a bit… but that could wear off real quick if they lose early and allow reality to set in. They'll be undersized against most of their opponents, but you can't match their hearts.

FIBA World Ranking: 26


Key Players: Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, G, Dynamo Moscow (Russia); Zane Teilane-Tamane, C, Hondarribia-Irun (Spain); Ieva Kublina, F, Dynamo Moscow (Russia); Ieva Tare, F, TTT Riga (Latvia); Liene Jansone, F, Hondarribia-Irun (Spain); Gunta Basko, F, Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomeration (France).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified by winning quarterfinal game at 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifier Tournament.

The Skinny: After finishing a surprising fourth at the EuroBasket tournament, Latvia annihilated Angola 84-26 to earn this spot in Beijing, and they're definitely a team on the rise.

Teresa Says: Jekabsone-Zogota was one of the leading scorers in the Diamond Ball Tournament -- and had a big day against the USA -- and has played really well in the EuroLeague for Dynamo Moscow over the last few seasons. Zane Teilane had a little run in the WNBA, too, so she's capable of bringing it inside. But as a whole, you have to pay attention to any team that played the U.S. as closely as they did. That impressed me.

FIBA World Ranking: 3

Key Players: Becky Hammon, G, San Antonio Silver Stars; Maria Stepanova, C, CSKA Moskow (Russia); Tatiana Shchegoleva, F, Spartak Moscow Region (Russia); Irina Osipova, F/C, Spartak Moscow Region (Russia); Svetlana Abrosimova, G/F, UMMC Ekaterinburg (Russia); Ilona Korstin, G, CSKA Moscow (Russia);

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified as the gold medalist from the FIBA Europe Championship.

The Skinny: Russia topped a talented field to win the 2007 EuroBasket title, earning this spot in Beijing with a solid group of veteran talent. Having defeated the USA and eventually winning silver at the 2006 World Championships in Brazil should also give this squad the confidence to compete with the best in Beijing. And though there are questions surrounding the impact Becky Hammon will have on this team, if she and the talented Russian posts can put it together, they'll again be in the running for a medal.

Teresa Says: They surprised everyone by finishing fifth out of six teams in the Diamond Ball tournament, but there's something you need to know about Russia. They're never at their best in the pre-tournaments or even in pool play. But when it comes down to the medal rounds, they're a totally different package. They don't disappoint when the tournament's on the line. They're the ones who caught the U.S. by surprise at the World Championships.

Anyway, there's a lot of talent on this team. Becky Hammon is obviously a tremendous player, though I have reservations about how quickly she'll be able to gel with the rest of the European-style Russian squad. Even though they need a point guard, they won't like the fact that she shoots as much as she does. Stepanova is very solid inside… when she steps up and plays her game, they're typically very successful. But beyond her and their other starters, I don't think they have a ton of depth down low. I'll never count 'em out because they have great shooters. And I don't think they'll let Becky shoot as much. And when they play more carefully, they're capable of playing with anybody.

South Korea
FIBA World Ranking: 7

Key Players: Sun-Min Jung, C, WKBL (Korea); Yeon Ha Beon, F, WKBL (Korea); Eunjoo Ha; Jung Eun Park, F, WKBL (Korea); Jung Eun Kim; Kwe Ryong Kim, C, WKBL Selected Team (Korea)

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified as the gold medalist from the FIBA Asia Championship.

The Skinny: The Koreans claimed their 13th continental title since 1965, beating China in the process. They beat New Zealand in an Olympic test event, but they also fell to Cuba in the same tourney.

Teresa Says: Jung Sun-Min had a short run in the WNBA, and I think this is another team that could surprise some people in China. They're so disciplined! They know they're undersized, but they play so intelligently. They play a half-court game so quick you won't believe your eyes. And their shooters are remarkably proficient. You haven't seen many teams that can shoot like this. I've played against Korean teams before, and you always wonder how they make it as far as they do. But they do it because they're disciplined, they play hard from start to finish and they're one of the best-prepared teams in the world.

Group B

FIBA World Ranking: 10

Key Players: Sui Feifei, F, CBA Beijing (China); Chen Nan, C, CBA Beijing (China); Chen Xiaoli, CBA Beijing (China); Miao Lijie, F, CBA Beijing (China); Zhang Wei, F, CBA Beijing (China)

How'd they get to Beijing? The host nation directly qualifies.

The Skinny: In front of their home fans, China won bronze at the pre-Olympic Diamond Ball tournament. Could that be a precursor of things to come in the Olympics? Having won bronze at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and a silver in Barcelona in 1992, expectations will be high this time around for the Chinese.

Teresa Says: This is another team that's really efficient in the backcourt. Sui Feifei played in the WNBA a few years back and she made the all-tournament team for the Diamond Ball, so you know she's capable of doing something special. They have two players who are 6-5 and two more who are 6-4. That's tall for China. And China beat the U.S. in the Good Luck Beijing tournament back in April. Not to mention the home-court advantage of playing in front of your own fans. They'll be very motivated and they're very disciplined.

Czech Republic
FIBA World Ranking: 9

Key Players: Hana Machova, G, Gambrinus Brno (Czech Republic); Eva Víteckova, F, Gambrinus Brno (Czech Repubic); Jana Vesela, F, Gambrinus Brno (Czech Republic).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified by winning quarterfinal game at 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifier Tournament.

The Skinny: The fifth-place finishers at the 2007 EuroBasket competition, the Czechs won all three of their games at the Olympic qualifying tournament, coming from behind to beat a tough Japanese squad in the quarterfinals. Jan Bobrovsky's roster is full of players who have excelled at the national and European levels, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can compete with the best in the world.

Teresa Says: This is a really tough, hard-playing team. But they've simply never had the talent of the U.S. or the other top teams in the world. They're closing the gap, but I still don't think they're quite to that elite level.

FIBA World Ranking: 31

Key Players: Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, G, Houston Comets; Djene Diawara, F, Limoges ABC (France); Kadiatou Kanoute; Djénébou Sissoko, C; Aminata Sininta, C, Djoliba AC (Mali).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified as the gold medalist from the FIBA Africa Championship.

The Skinny: Simply qualifying for the women's basketball competition at the Olympics is an amazing story for this team. They shocked perennial power Senegal in the FIBA Africa Championship final in front of their own fans to earn this spot, the first ever continental championship for the nation, and also took down Angola in a knockout-round game.

Teresa Says: They're the lowest ranked team to make the Olympics, and, frankly, they surprised everyone by qualifying in the first place. They do have a solid WNBA player in Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, who I really like and who will be a leader for this group… but I'm gonna roll out of my bed and fall on my head if they win a game in Beijing.

No one figured they'd make it this far and it seems to me like they're getting in over their heads. The first time I was in the Olympics, I was just happy to be there… and I didn't know what I was doing. (Thank god the coaches realized that and kept me out of the game as long as they could! We were led at the time by a woman named Pat Head… maybe you've heard of her. We'd be up 30 or 40 points, I'd still be sitting on the bench and I'd be thinking, "Wow, you think I can really mess THIS up?") And that's kind of how I picture Mali to be: They're going to be representing their country that's already proud of them. But they're going to have a tough time against this level of competition.

New Zealand
FIBA World Ranking: 16

Key Players: Aneka Kerr, F, Christchurch Sirens (New Zealand); Angela Marino, G, Adelaide Lightning (Australia); Charmian Purcell, F, Christchurch Sirens (New Zealand); Natalie Purcell, F, Christchurch Sirens (New Zealand); Suzie Bates, G, Christchurch Sirens (New Zealand); Jessica McCormack, C, University of Connecticut.

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified as the gold medalist from the FIBA Oceania Championship.

The Skinny: The Tall Ferns, as they're called, tend to rule the Oceanic region with their Australian neighbors. But that's not saying much given that they earned their 2008 Olympic spot with a 118-31 defeat of Fiji. There are some solid players on this roster... in fact, this team reached the Olympic quarterfinals at Athens 2004. But they don't have the level of talent of the Opals. Not by a longshot.

Teresa Says: With UConn-committed teen center Jessica McCormack, U.S.-raised Jillian Harmon and Clare Bodensteiner (who both played at Stanford) and Oregon guard Micaela Cocks all expected to be suiting up for the Tall Ferns in Beijing, they'll bring some American style to their team. Captain Aneka Kerr and point guard Angela Marino both have Olympic experience, having made the trip to Athens in 2004. They're a very young team, but they played Australia (without Lauren Jackson) tough recently, so they clearly have a lot of fight.

FIBA World Ranking: 5

Key Players: Amaya Valdemoro, F, CSKA Samara (Russia); Anna Montañana, F, Perfumerías Avenida (Spain); Elisa Aguilar Lopez, G, Ros Casares (Spain); Laia Palau, G, Ros Casares (Spain); Nuria Martinez, G, Dynamo Moscow (Russia).

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified by winning quarterfinal game at 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifier Tournament.

The Skinny: This will be the third Olympic appearance for the constantly improving Spanish side, and though this team has never left the Games with a medal, it should be fielding one of the world's better sides this time around. Recent injuries to Valdemoro and Palau could play a major role, but point guard Nuria Martinez should be healthy after suffering from tendinitis in her hand.

Teresa Says: This is a team with a lot of experience at the international level that plays your prototypical European style of basketball. They're very skilled -- even their bigs -- and they play very hard. Amaya Valdemoro is really a tremendous player who's been around for a while now. She can drop 30 on any given night, even in an international competition. Her recent injury, though, forced the rest of the team to step up and improve while she was away. They've done that, and I really feel like they could contend for a medal.

United States
FIBA World Ranking: 1

Key Players: Seimone Augustus, F, Minnesota Lynx; Sue Bird, G, Seattle Storm; Tamika Catchings, F, Indiana Fever; Sylvia Fowles, C, Chicago Sky; Kara Lawson, G, Sacramento Monarchs; Lisa Leslie, C, Los Angeles Sparks; DeLisha Milton-Jones, F, Los Angeles Sparks; Candace Parker, F/C/G, Los Angeles Sparks; Cappie Pondexter, G, Phoenix Mercury; Katie Smith, G/F, Detroit Shock; Diana Taurasi, F, Phoenix Mercury; Tina Thompson, F, Houston Comets.

How'd they get to Beijing? Qualified as the gold medalist from the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship.

The Skinny: You know the story: three straight Olympic golds but a disappointing bronze at the 2006 World Championships. After several recent setbacks -- including two losses at the Good Luck Beijing tournament in April -- it's fair to say that the rest of the world is catching up to the USA. But it's also fair to say, particularly with the return of Lisa Leslie, that this is one of the finest collections of basketball talent in the history of the women's game. Literally any of the players could lead the team in a given game and the second wave off the bench could prove to be just as dangerous as the first. With a powerful mix of youth and experience, inside and outside, offense and defense, coach Anne Donovan has all of the tools to run the table.

Teresa Says: Defense has always proven to be a thorn in our side in these tournaments, and that's maybe because the timing makes it tough to put a solid team defense together. The team recognizes that now, and they seem to be really buying in to that defensive mentality. That's going to be a major key for the USA earning a fourth straight Olympic gold.

Offensively, we're stacked. We have the inside dominance, we have the athletic, slashing scorers and we have pure shooters out there. Sue Bird will definitely get the job done at the point -- that will be no worries at all. What this team must understand is that they must keep getting better as the Olympics go on… not relaxing because they're winning games by a lot of points. And they have to keep putting together 40-minute games.

I'm excited to watch them play because the effort they've put forth since they've come together is just tremendous. Under the strain of playing overseas and coming to the WNBA and finally coming together for the U.S. squad, I'm totally impressed with how far they've come. Right now, I have to say they're the favorites to win, and as long as they come ready to play 40 minutes in every game, I think they'll stay that way.