Can anyone dethrone Team USA in Tokyo?
The Olympics are finally upon us, with the opening ceremony taking place early this morning if you are located in the United States. I certainly was not awake to watch, but what I do know is that 5-time Olympian Sue Bird joined an exclusive club of athletes to represent the USA as the flag bearer for the ceremony.
Bird is just the second women’s basketball player ever honored with this distinction, the first being her head coach Dawn Staley in 2004, which happened to be Bird’s first appearance in the Olympics. No men’s basketball player has ever been the flag bearer.
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The action begins Sunday, with South Korea and Spain kicking off the women’s basketball slate. Preliminary round matchups will go on for one week, with the quarterfinals beginning on August 3rd. Making it out of pool play will not be the most difficult of tasks for many countries, as 8 out of the 12 participating nations will advance to the bracket stage.
These Olympics will feature a level of depth of rosters outside the US greater than we have ever seen before, so let’s look at who has a chance to make a run and why.
There is no surprise that the USA women’s team is the betting favorite (-1100 on Draft Kings) to take home gold. Winners of the passed 6 Olympic games, the level of experience that these women have is unparalleled compared to other countries. The US is mentally and emotionally led by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, the ladder being the dominant force in the 2016 Rio games that saw the US team go 8-0, never winning a game by less than 19 points.
However, we have already seen some uncharacteristic struggles out of the Americans during an exhibition loss to Australia and the WNBA All-Stars. Could this be the year the US finally gets beat? Not if Breanna Stewart can help it. The Storm forward led the USA in the FIBA World Cup in 2018 and will be the go-to scorer in Tokyo. Combine her unprecedented offensive ability with the depth of talent on this US team and it is hard not to see gold in their future.
There are four countries that not only have the players, coaches and chemistry to podium, but the historical accomplishments that prove they can get it done. Spain, France, and Australia have won the last three silver medals respectively with Serbia coming off a bronze medal in 2016, and they each have a combination of WNBA and homegrown stars leading the way.
Coming off of a second-place finish at EuroBasket earlier this summer, France’s mix of veterans and younger players rivals the US age gap. Their two best players during that run were Marine Johannes, the New York Liberty guard who has not played in the W since 2019, and Valeriane Vukosavljevic, who plays for the French squad Basket Landes. Les Bleus also have Gabby Williams of the Los Angeles Sparks (although she has yet to suit up for LA), and Sandrine Gruda, a former WNBA player who was one of the first players I ever watched for the Connecticut Sun in 2010.
As mentioned earlier, Australia already has the advantage of knocking team USA’s confidence down a notch. They will be without presumptive leader Liz Cambage after she withdrew from the team citing mental health reasons, but the Opals have plenty of other options. It was future Storm superstar Ezi Magbegor who led Australia in their exhibition matchups, and fellow WNBA players Leilani Mitchell, Rebecca Allen, and Stephanie Talbot join her in the starting lineup.
Australia is coached by the Phoenix Mercury’s Sandy Brondello, who is of course very familiar with many of the USA players. An important note for the Opals will be what happens when some of the younger players are outside their comfort zone on the court. Coach Brondello said. “We have to make sure we can adapt to any style we’re playing. It’s not everyday you get to beat the USA”.
Runner’s up in the Olympics in Rio, there’s reason to believe that Spain will not live up to those lofty expectations this time around. Spain had a seemingly disastrous finish at Eurobasket, falling to Serbia in the Quarterfinals. However, they were without their best player in Alba Torrens of UMMC Ekaterinburg. Chicago Sky forward Astou Ndour took over in her absence but was unable to push the Spanish squad passed the eventual champions. Coming off the bench is Raquel Carrera, who at only 19 was drafted by the Atlanta Dream in the second round of the 2021 WNBA draft.
At what point does on-the-court excellence push a country from dark horse to contender? I know Serbia is good at basketball. I know they just won EuroBasket and are coming off of a third-place finish in Rio. But since few of their players are household names in America, they do not get the credit that their talent deserves. Sonja Vasic was the EuroBasket MVP, with teammate Yvonne Anderson adding 14 points a game to the cause. The Serbians biggest strength is their efficiency from both inside and beyond the arc which will be on full display in Tokyo.
The Dark Horses
Belgium could be considered a contender solely due to Emma Meesseman, the problem is the rest of the roster is not nearly at her level, especially the bench. The four other starters all had respectable EuroBasket performances, but once the secondary unit comes in they become extremely vulnerable on both ends of the court. Head coach Philip Mestdagh will have to choose between tiring out his starting five with tons of minutes in pool play, or risk letting less experienced players play in key moments.
Canada has never podiumed despite seven Olympic appearances, but there is a youth movement of basketball players developing from up north who are hungry to change that. Kia Nurse and Natalie Achonwa are established W players who led the team in Olympic qualifiers. Three-point specialist Bridget Carleton is on the squad, alongside UConn post player Aaliyah Edwards. Edwards is the future of Canadian basketball, so I am very interested to see how she performs in her first Olympics as she could be the X-factor for Canada.
The Here to Have Fun Countries
So you are saying there is a chance? The remaining five squads simply do not have the talent to compete with the top dogs in women’s basketball. Nigeria would be a different story if Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams were able to play. China has the height inside to make things interesting, but a less-than-scary backcourt. Host nation Japan had some success in qualifiers but will be missing their best player in Ramu Tokashiki.
South Korea and Puerto Rico are favored to finish as the bottom two squads, with both teams featuring a WNBA player in Park Ji-su and Jazmon Gwathmey respectively.
How I think things will play out
The top two teams in each group will move on, along with two of the three third place teams. From Group A, I like Serbia to win the pool with Spain and Canada also advancing. Group B should be handled by the Americans with the French going 2-1 to make it to bracket play. Australia and Belgium have good odds to make it out of Group C relatively unscathed. That leaves, in my mind, Nigeria and China as the two teams who will fight via point differential for the final seed, and although my gut likes D’Tigress, China has a much easier path to that 8th seed.
This is where pool play records and point differential becomes very important, as the top seed will have a much easier opponent than 2-4. I like the USA to move on to the semifinals alongside Australia and France, and my surprise pick of the tournament will be Canada to knock of Serbia in the bracket despite just losing to them in my theoretical group play scenario.
I, (and everyone else), think USA and Australia will advance to the gold medal match for the fourth time in history, where the Americans will prove why they are known as the best team in the world and become Olympic champions once again.
As for third place, I’ll keep my Canadian upset train rolling and have them take Bronze over the French.
Since I of course cannot predict the future (as anyone who read my WNBA All-Star piece knows), I highly encourage you to stay up to date with what is sure to be an exciting Olympic basketball slate from start to finish.