THE U.S. WOMEN will be favored to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Beijing, but their task won't be easy. As with the men, the global competition has improved. And while most of Team USA's top rivals—Australia, Russia and Brazil—have had the bulk of their teams together for several weeks, if not months, the U.S. won't convene until July 28, two weeks before the Olympic tournament begins.
Time together is critical for developing good defense, something the U.S. lacked when it lost to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships in Brazil. Moreover, the team was without its two best defensive posts, Lisa Leslie (of the Los Angeles Sparks) and Yolanda Griffith (then of the Sacramento Monarchs), who both pulled out at the last minute. "If somebody got past our perimeter, they got to the rim without thinking too much about it," says coach Anne Donovan.
USA Basketball has addressed the issues raised at the worlds in two ways. It has created a pool of 29 players who get national-team experience when their schedules allow. "While we aren't able to prepare the 12-member team together, at least everybody has had a chance to work with the head coach, understand the strategy and have some sort of evaluation process," says USA Basketball assistant executive director Carol Callan. And from that pool it has selected a team that offers depth at every position, which will help the defensive mission. The group is a mix of savvy Olympic vets such as Leslie, Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and Tina Thompson (Houston Comets), and accomplished newbies such as Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx), Candace Parker (Sparks) and 6'6" Chicago Sky rookie Sylvia Fowles (left), who could redefine the role of defensive post. "We haven't had a big, dominating inside force like Sylvia for a long time," says Donovan of LSU's alltime leading shot blocker, "someone in the paint whom people are going to be a little bit afraid of." Fowles relishes being an intimidator. "I consider the paint my house," she says. In Beijing, anyone who gets into the lane against the U.S. will have plenty to think about.