No team under more pressure to win gold in 2012 than U.S. women
There is only one acceptable color for the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team: gold.
The squad has not lost an Olympic game since 1992 and over the past 16 years, the U.S. women have rolled up a 72-1 record in international competitions, including four consecutive Olympic gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008) and three FIBA world championships (1998, 2002, 2010). Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who coached the U.S. to victory in 1996 at the Atlanta Games, said there was not a day she coached the national team where she did not feel the gold-or-bust pressure.
"Everyone thinks we're going to win the gold medal," VanDerveer said. "When we met the president during that year, or met Supreme Court justices, they're like, 'Bring back the gold.' I felt it [the pressure] every minute. There's no doubt that we can beat any country four out of seven, but this is not that kind of tournament. It's like the NCAA tournament."
The current U.S. women's basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, has plenty of NCAA pedigree having won seven national championships at UConn, and he makes no apologies for the UConn-ization of Team USA. The group in London this summer will include five of Auriemma's former players (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi), and all 11 of the players selected for Team USA -- the final roster spot will be announced in May -- own at least one Olympic or world championship gold medal.
"When you are putting together a team like this, the first thing you have to be is unselfish -- you have to be OK not being the center of attention," Auriemma said. "You have to understand that it is not about you. It's about our team and our country. You have to be all-in in terms of what we need to win and not what you need to satisfy your ego. From a philosophical standpoint, that is what I value. ... What those players have done since they left Connecticut has been nothing short of remarkable. They deserved this. They deserved this honor. They have worked hard for it, and they have brought back gold medals everywhere they have been."
The gilded group includes seven players with an NCAA title (Bird, Cash, Tamika Catchings, Charles, Moore, Candace Parker and Taurasi) and six players crowned WNBA champions (Seimone Augustus, Bird, Cash, Moore, Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen). WNBA stars Sylvia Fowles, a 6-foot-4 center, and Angel McCoughtry, a 6-1 forward, are the other selections.
Auriemma said he wanted players who were versatile and not limited to one position.
"When we went to the world championships two years ago, we had players that could mix and match," Auriemma said. "They could defend and score from different spots on the floor. To me, the more versatile our team, the harder we will be to play against. And I want players that are winners. I want players that have won championships whether in college, overseas or the WNBA, Olympics. I want players that are used to winning and know what it takes to win."
After a training camp in May and a series of exhibition games in Washington D.C., Manchester, England, and Istanbul, the U.S. will arrive in London in late July for the opening round of the Olympic tournament. The medal games will be played Aug. 11 at the North Greenwich Arena in London. The strongest competition is expected to come from Brazil, Russia and longtime rival Australia, which has WNBA star center Lauren Jackson and an emerging inside player in 20-year-old Elizabeth Cambage, a 6-8 center who made the WNBA All-Star team as a rookie for Tulsa last year.
"A lot of the European teams are moving up, but Australia's the one," said Bird, when asked about the biggest competitor.
But there is no way to sugarcoat it: The U.S. is a prohibitive favorite -- arguably the biggest of any team at the London Games -- and they are unmatched in depth or talent. Eleven of the 12 players were announced during the Women's Final Four in Denver, and the safe money is that the final spot will go to Baylor junior center Brittney Griner, who led her team to a 40-0 season and averaged 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds with the U.S. national team during its European tour last summer. The team's training camp begins the second week in May, so expect a decision by then.
"Everybody knows that I'm a big fan of Brittney Griner," Auriemma said. "There's a couple of big kids playing for other teams around the world, Australia and Russia, specifically. Do I think that [post players] Tina, Sylvia and Candace can win the gold medal against those two teams with that size? Absolutely. Do I think a 6-8 kid could help us be even better? Yeah, I think so. That's the luxury that the United States has, isn't it?"
Said Griner of the possibility of making the U.S. team: "It's a dream to represent your country and put on the USA jersey, so it would mean a lot."
Auriemma hinted at the Griner selection two weeks ago when he talked about building this team beyond London. If chosen, Griner would become the first college women's basketball player to compete in the Olympics for the U.S. since 1988 when Maryland's Vicky Bullett and Tennessee's Bridgette Gordon won gold under the late Kay Yow.
"Our job at USA Basketball is not only to win a gold medal this year, but also to make sure that we're doing what we need to do in 2016 and 2020," Auriemma said. "So we're not just picking the best team for this year, which obviously is the No. 1 goal, but we also want to be conscious of, 'What do we need to do to keep this thing not only where it is, but to get it even better?'"