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The United States women’s basketball team is looking to build on one of the most impressive streaks of Olympic success across any sport as it enters the Tokyo Games. Team USA is eyeing a seventh consecutive gold medal this summer, having not lost a contest in Olympic competition since 1992.
In 2016, when the U.S. team took home gold in Rio, it scored 102.1 points per game, surrendering just 64.9 points per game to its opponents. It won games by 65 points, 46 points and 43 points, and dominated Spain in a 29-point victory to claim the tournament’s top honors.
Like that group, this year’s team features no apparent weaknesses. It is equipped with a number of steady veterans, including Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who will both be looking to claim their fifth straight gold, and Sylvia Fowles, who is making her fourth Olympic appearance. And the roster also includes a number of the sport’s brightest stars, including first-timers like reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier. Now, led by Hall of Fame South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, it’s unclear how the team’s lineups will shakeout. But no matter who starts and who comes off the bench, expectations remain the same.
Here’s a look at what you need to know about Team USA and the Tokyo Olympics’ women’s basketball tournament:
Key U.S. players to watch
Arguably Team USA’s best player, Stewart is in the midst of yet another stellar WNBA season with the Storm. She enters the Olympics averaging 20.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per for Seattle this year. She’s also less than a year removed from winning her second WNBA title and second WNBA Finals MVP. The 26-year-old Stewart was the MVP of the 2018 FIBA World Cup, and she will look to add a second gold medal to an already loaded résumé.
It’s a testament to just how much talent is on Team USA’s roster that Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP, will make her first Olympics appearance this summer. While her field goal percentage has dipped slightly, the star Aces forward is still averaging 19.4 points and nine rebounds on 45.3% shooting from the field. Wilson is part of the roster’s loaded frontcourt, and, after taking home a number of gold medals in youth international tournaments, she’ll look to replicate that success in Tokyo.
The WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder, Fowles, 36, is joining an exclusive list of just six other U.S. basketball players who have competed in at least four Olympics. She remains a stabilizing force for the Lynx and a disruptive presence on both ends of the floor. Not only is Fowles averaging 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds on 60.8% shooting this season for Minnesota, but she’s also second in the WNBA in steals, recording two per contest.
Loyd enters the Olympics in the middle of what might be her best WNBA season yet. The 27-year-old guard is averaging 17.5 points, 4.2 rebound and a career-high 4.2 assists per game with the Storm. While Team USA has plenty of experience at the guard position, with Bird and Taurasi combining to make their 10th Olympic appearance in Tokyo, Loyd is a dynamic playmaker and will likely be among Team USA’s most relied-upon backcourt players this summer and beyond.
Story lines to watch
How will the U.S. team look different under Staley?
Staley is heading up the U.S. women’s national team this summer, replacing UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who led Team USA to gold medals in 2012 and 2016. But while Staley is taking over the lead chair for the first time in an Olympics, she’s by no means new to Olympic action. On the contrary, Staley was an assistant at the ’16 Games, and has been a part of five of the last six U.S. gold medal runs. She took home three golds as a player (in 1996, 2000 and ’04) and has two gold medals as an assistant (in ’08 and ’16). In Tokyo, she’s tasked with figuring out how to bring the best out of the world’s best roster. It’s worth watching what lineups she employs and what style the team plays.
Which players will emerge from the loaded roster?
Past WNBA MVPs will have to come off the bench for Team USA, as a number of the sport’s biggest stars will likely be ushered into roles they aren’t accustomed to. It’s certainly a good problem to have for the U.S., but it makes projecting what exactly lineups will look like this summer a difficult task. Playing time in the frontcourt will be especially competitive, with Wilson and Stewart being perhaps the WNBA’s two best players, but Tina Charles squarely in MVP conversations for this season, Fowles being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Brittney Griner being a consistent force in the paint and Collier continuing to star in a do-everything role for the Lynx.
How much on-court experience will the first-timers get?
It’s clear that when USA Basketball constructed this year’s team it did so with an eye not only toward this year’s Olympics, but for international competitions to come. Six of the 12 players from the 2016 Rio Olympics roster are not taking part in the Tokyo games, including Maya Moore, who was No. 2 in scoring, No. 1 in assists and in three-way tie for most rebounds on that 2016 team, and Elena Delle Donne, who is still rehabbing a back injury.
Instead, the team features six newcomers, creating a perfect balance of experience and youth.
“I think it’s a good combination for those newbies to get their feet wet and experience what this is all about, and let them understand the legacy that USA Basketball carries,” Fowles told Sports Illustrated last month.
Four of the first-timers are backcourt players, and with this likely being the last Olympics for Bird and Taurasi (though who really knows with them?), this summer provides a golden opportunity to develop some of the program’s backcourt combinations.
Who are the other contenders?
If any country could shock the world and upend the U.S., Australia seems as if it would be the team poised to do so. Much like the U.S. roster, it is loaded with WNBA talent. While star Aces center Liz Cambage pulled out to focus on her mental health, the roster still features Storm center Ezi Magbegor, Liberty forward Rebecca Allen, Mystics guard Leilani Mitchell, Mercury forward Alanna Smith Mercury and Storm wing Stephanie Talbot. The group also has WNBA experience on its bench, as Sandy Brondello heads up the Mercury in addition to leading Team Australia.
The Opals have a rich basketball history, taking home three silvers and two bronzes from 1996 to 2012, but they struggled in the ’16 Rio Olympics and failed to medal. They rebounded recently, taking home the silver at the 2018 World Cup in Spain and are eyeing what would be a historic upset.
Veteran forward Sonja Vasic will carry her nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of this year’s games before looking to put on a show during the basketball competition. Serbia took home the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics and recently won the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket title, with Vasic taking home MVP honors.
Canada’s best Olympic finish came in the 1984 Los Angeles games when it earned fourth-place honors. This year’s team is fully capable of exceeding that mark. Now in their third consecutive Olympics, Team Canada features six Olympic veterans, including Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa. Among the group’s six first-timers are forward Bridget Carleton, also of the Lynx, and Kia Nurse, a Mercury guard. UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards is also on Team Canada’s 12-person roster.
Spain will face a number of early challenges as it’s matched up against both Serbia and Canada in Group A action. But the Spaniards will be looking to replicate their success from the ’16 Olympics, which saw them take home silver.
Key dates and matchups (Eastern Time)
The 12-team tournament begins on Sunday, July 25, as South Korea and Spain open Group A action. The preliminary round runs through the beginning of August with quarterfinals action starting on Wednesday, Aug. 3. The semifinals are currently scheduled for Friday, Aug. 6, with the gold medal game set for Saturday, Aug. 7.
July 26 — Serbia vs. Canada
July 27 — Nigeria vs. U.S.
July 27 — Australia vs. Belgium
July 29 — Spain vs. Serbia
July 30 — France vs. Nigeria
July 30 — China vs. Australia
July 31 — Canada vs. Spain
Aug. 2 — France vs. U.S.
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