U.S., France among teams to watch in women's basketball medal round
Despite lack of pre-Olympic practice, the U.S. looks sharp before semi vs. Canada
France has been inconsistent, but is heavily favored entering matchup with Czechs
Turkey, fronted by star center Nevriye Yilmaz, should factor into the medal picture
You'd never know it from the way the U.S. women's basketball team has sailed into the medal round, without an opponent getting within 25 points, but going into the London Olympics the Americans could point to a total of only 10 practices and five games together. That's why coach Geno Auriemma has seized every opportunity to create cohesion, whether by turning morning shootarounds into more substantive practices or pool-play garbage time into strict exercises in half-court offense.
"We're not going to win an Olympic gold medal just running up and down the floor," Auriemma said. "We've got to do something in a half-court set. Any opportunity to work on that helps us."
Regardless of where the offense has come from, the U.S. has racked up an assist on almost 70 percent of its baskets so far. "At times they share the ball too much," said Canada coach Alison McNeill. "They're almost passing up shots just because they can."
It seemed that way at times during the Americans' final pool-play game, a 114-66 romp of China on Sunday. The U.S. was delighted to welcome back center Sylvia Fowles, who had missed three games with a bad foot and will be useful in a likely semifinal collision with Australia and a possible gold-medal game against Turkey, Russia or France, four teams with depth and skill in the post.
Still, according to French coach Pierre Vincent, the U.S. looks "unbeatable."
The field will be pared from eight to four during tomorrow's Super Tuesday quarterfinals. On one side of the draw, the U.S. will play Canada and Australia will match up with China. In the other quarterfinals, Turkey will meet Russia, while the revelation of the tournament, France, will take on the Czech Republic.
"Before the tournament it was all about the U.S., Australia and Russia," Auriemma said. "The Turkish and the French have had the biggest impact on our coaching staff and our players."
Here's a look at the seven teams that stand between the U.S. and a record fifth consecutive team gold medal:
Yes, under scrutiny, France's 5-0 record in pool play looks a little flimsy. Two of those victories came in overtime, and Les Bleus only beat Australia by four. But captain Celine Dumerc, the guard who forward Isabelle Yacoubou calls "the heart of the team," has a knack for knocking down timely three-pointers.
"They're a very smart, good team," said Russia's Becky Hammon. "Then with post players like [Sandrine] Gruda and Yacoubou, it's tough, because you can't double them when they're shooting well from the outside."
The one knock on the French is inconsistency -- they led Russia by 25 at one point, yet needed overtime to put away winless Great Britain. But, said Yacoubou, "We like to play together and we like to win together."
Verdict: France should easily beat the Czechs to reach a semifinal showdown with either Turkey or Russia. "Teams have been close to them, but haven't beaten them," said McNeill, the Canadian coach. "And that shows some resilience."
Though it reached the finals of the 2010 World Championships, this team isn't remotely as good. Czech basketball is in the midst of blending a cohort of younger players with its older generation, and the adjustment process shows, particularly in the backcourt. "Their guard play is limited and vulnerable," said U.S. assistant coach Doug Bruno.
In fact, the Czechs seem to know that they're among the weakest of the quarterfinalists. "Reaching the quarterfinals is a great result for us," said center Ilona Burgrova. "It was our goal and going further than that will be something extra."
Verdict: Don't expect that bonus to materialize -- though the Czechs' quarterfinal opponent, France, has played three very close games. In a tight spot the Czechs have enough experience that anything could happen.
Like the French, the Turks are on a steep upward curve. They're playing in their first Olympics, as the federation's support of the women's national team is beginning to pay off. (That support makes sense: Hoops is hot in Turkey; some of the world's leading women's club teams are based by the Bosphorus, and the country will host the Women's Worlds in 2014.)
The team's anchor is center Nevriye Yilmaz, a skilled post player who can matchup with such counterparts as Lauren Jackson of Australia, Nan Chen of China and anyone on the U.S. team. Turkey also leads the tournament in three-point shooting, sinking 38 percent of its attempts, thanks largely to guard Emine Tugba Palazoglu, who shoots reliably in the forties from beyond the arc. During a pre-Olympics exhibition in Istanbul, Turkey kept within single-digits of the U.S. for three quarters before losing by a respectable 19 points, as their screens and cuts showcased their extensive practice time together. That's the very kind of mileage the U.S. team doesn't have. As Auriemma said, "They're big, smart, physical and really, really well-coached."
Verdict: This "well-oiled screen-and-roll machine," in the words of U.S. wing Maya Moore, will be in the hunt for a medal -- which would be a transformative result for Turkish basketball.
They grumbled about early-morning tip-off times. They fell behind France by 25. They got dunked on by an Australian -- and the Aussies have hardly done anything, in any sport, in these Olympics so far. The Russians are accustomed to being in the medal conversation at international tournaments, yet in London they've seemed strangely out of sorts.
"Any team is beatable," said power forward Anna Petrakova. "Our team is capable."
U.S. assistant coach Doug Bruno agrees: "They're better than they've played so far."
Verdict: Don't quibble with Petrakova and Bruno. Russia has a frontcourt that can bang with anyone in a field stocked with fine post players. But on the form so far, this isn't a team ready to match feats like last year's European title or the bronze it won in the past two Olympics.
"We used to come into tournaments with a bit of a swagger," said guard Kristi Harrower. The London Olympics have offered a reality check. While the 2012 Games have marked the emergence of 6-foot-8 Lizzie (Slambage) Cambage, who provided the most YouTube-able moment of pool play with her dunk against Russia, the Opals have sometimes seemed befuddled by having to integrate six rookies and find a floor leader to replace injured Penny Taylor. Jackson remains perhaps the premier post player in the world, and Belinda Snell is a reliable sniper from the perimeter. If Australia can get past China in the quarters, and the U.S. dispatches Canada, it would be the first time since 1996 that the Aussies would face the U.S. earlier than an Olympic final.
Verdict: We'll let coach Carrie Graf deliver it. "We'll scratch, bite, do whatever it takes to win," she said. "We've got some big, strong women who won't shy away from a dogfight."
Center Nan Chen leads the tournament in scoring. Guard Zengyu Ma is a splendid three-point shooter. Floor leader Lijie Miao, a veteran of three Olympics and the WNBA, runs the offense with poise. And as the quickest team in the tournament other than the U.S., opposing teams are forever on guard not to surrender offensive rebounds. But the word is out that they're vulnerable to pressure, a tactic both the Americans and the Turks found successful during pool play.
Verdict: Though they're not likely to survive their quarterfinal against Australia, the Chinese had the benefit of 25 games together before coming to London.
Call it a Canadian high: The return of Canada to the top tier of women's hoops after a dozen years in the wilderness has sent a breeze through the team. "It used to be, 'O.K., let's see if we can lose by less than 20,'" said veteran forward Kim Smith. "Now we're ready to present ourselves to the best in the world. We came here ready to make some noise."
They make their noise in an unlikely fashion, by running a Princeton-style attack. "If they need 23 seconds to get a shot off, they'll use 23 seconds," said U.S. guard Sue Bird, whose WNBA team, the Seattle Storm, scrimmaged the Canadians last spring and came away impressed.
Verdict: The Canadians have struggled with the three-point shot. Only a performance for the ages from beyond the arc will give them a chance against the U.S.
As for the U.S., last week Moore found herself contemplating what it would be like if she and her teammates had a chance to spend a full season together. "It's scary," she said. "The last time any of us knew what that was like was in college. This is my fifth team in a year."
That's the life of an American women's pro -- vagabonding from a European club in the winter to a WNBA team in the summer, with national-team play squeezed in between. With more prep time, Moore said, "We'd be in much better sync.
"Not," she hastened to add, "that we're not in sync now."