Gold or bust. Those are the only outcomes for the U.S. women's basketball team, arguably the most prohibitive favorite at the London Games.
"Our roster, top to bottom, is unmatched," said U.S. guard Maya Moore, a member of the 2010 FIBA World Championship-winning team.
She's right. A team of U.S. bench players would likely be a silver-medal favorite, and it will be a shocking result if the Americans don't bring home gold. The most interesting competition of the tournament will be between the teams vying for a spot against the Americans in the gold-medal game. Along with the U.S., perennial Olympic runner-up Australia, China and Russia are the best bets to end up on the medal stand.
The U.S. squad is a who's who of the sport, including WNBA All-Stars Seimone Augustus, Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry, Candace Parker, Lindsay Whalen and six of coach Geno Auriemma's former UConn players (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Asjha Jones, Moore and Diana Taurasi). Australia is led by longtime WNBA star center Lauren Jackson and 20-year-old Elizabeth Cambage, a 6-foot-8 center who made the WNBA All-Star team as a rookie for Tulsa last year. Six-time WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon, a naturalized Russian citizen, will suit up again for Russia. China forward Miao Lijie averaged a tournament-best 17.9 points at the Beijing Games, where Miao and center Chen Nan helped the host nation to a fourth-place finish.
The Americans have not lost an Olympic game since 1992. Over the past 16 years the U.S. women have rolled up a 72-1 record in international competition, including four consecutive Olympic gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008) and three World Championships (1998, 2002 and 2010). They went 8-0 in Beijing, where they outscored opponents by an average margin of 35.8 points.
At a U.S. Olympic Summit in May, Auriemma was asked if the women's game would grow faster if the U.S. was not as dominant as it had been internationally.
"I get asked that question all the time at UConn," Auriemma told ESPN. "I get it a million times. 'Wouldn't it be better if someone other than UConn won the national championship?' Well, we've tried to accommodate that the last few years. We're doing our part to grow the game. But when you set a certain standard for excellence and how the game should be played, you are growing the game. You are challenging people to reach that standard, that level. If someone does come along and beats the U.S. in the gold-medal game or any Olympic game, then we will have had a big part in why that happened, in growing the game to that level. That's why we have to get better."
Australia has long been the closest rival to the U.S., but close is relative: The U.S. has defeated Australia in the gold-medal game of the past three Olympics and also defeated the Opals in the group stage at the 2010 World Championship in Brazil. China represents the toughest game for the U.S. in its group stage (Group A), while Group B has an interesting Australia-Russia opening-round game.
Great Britain is unlikely to medal, but the team's Olympic debut should do wonders for the country's youth programs. The squad was placed in Group B along with Australia, Brazil and Russia, a tough field even without the United States. Great Britain's best player is forward Julie Page, who played at Eastern Washington University in the mid-2000s and was named the British basketball player of the year in 2011.
"When I think about competing in the 2012 London Olympics, I get goose bumps," Page said. "It is every athlete's ultimate dream to be an Olympic competitor, and this one is even more special for us because we will be playing in front of a home crowd."
The United States is 50-3 since women's basketball play began at the 1976 Summer Games. Two of the three losses came in 1976 while the third came in 1992.
Aug. 11 at the North Greenwich Arena