September 25, 2014

While the U.S. women's basketball team is a heavy favorite to win another gold medal at the world championship, the Americans have shown some unusual vulnerability.

The U.S. has only lost once at the worlds since 1998, but suffered a rare defeat in an exhibition game against France last weekend.

That setback raised a few eyebrows heading into the tournament, which begins Saturday in Istanbul.

''There are a lot of really good teams in the tournament and we're one of them,'' said coach Geno Auriemma ''For us or anyone else to think we're anything more than that is not being really objective about this whole thing.''

The Americans ran through the 2012 London Olympics winning by an average of 34 points and have more than half of that team back in Turkey. Point guard Sue Bird, who will become the first U.S. player to compete on four world championship teams, will help lead the U.S. offense.

Bird said she wasn't aware of the milestone, ''it's kind of surreal in a way.''

One reality she is used when it comes to playing for the U.S. is the limited training as a team.

While other nations have been together for months preparing for the worlds, the Americans didn't finalize their roster until Tuesday. What the team lacks in preparation, they make up for with talent. The roster is headlined by Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore.

One potential thorn for the U.S. is a lack of experienced post players.

Two-time Olympians Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles are out with injuries. That just leaves Tina Charles and Candice Dupree as the only experienced posts.

They do, however, have 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, who will be making her debut on the U.S. national team. She was the WNBA defensive player of the year and set a record for most blocked shots in a game and season. Griner recently was cleared to join the team after suffering a retinal injury in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.

''I think my role will be blocking shots, playing defense and protecting that paint,'' said Griner, who didn't play in the loss to France. ''I'm happy with that, because I love defense.''

The Americans have a relatively easy draw facing China, Serbia and Angola in preliminary pool play. The U.S. has won all 11 meetings with China and Angola and will be facing Serbia for the first time.

Only Russia and Australia have caused problems for the U.S. in major international tournaments since 1996. The Russians handed the Americans their only major loss in the last 16 years in the 2006 world championship semifinals, but they didn't qualify for Istanbul.

Australia was leading the U.S. at the half of the semifinals of the London Olympics before falling by 13. The Aussies chances of a repeat performance took a huge hit as stars Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage both are out with Achillies tears.

That doesn't mean the U.S. won't be challenged.

France made an incredible run to win a silver medal in 2012 and has confidence after beating the Americans by four points on Sunday. They are led by WNBA players Sandrine Gruda and Celine Dumerc.

Turkey has been improving over the past few years and has the added advantage of playing at home in front of a spirited crowd.

''They are going to be very tough to beat,'' Auriemma said. ''I think if you're the home team like the Czech Republic was in 2010 there's some emotional benefit you get from that, provided you play well.''

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