It’s a tricky path to GOLD by Clay Kallam
After romping through the group stage with a 5-0 record – and not incidentally looking much stronger than the men’s team – the American women are favorites to keep their 46-game Olympic winning streak going all the way through the gold medal game at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) Saturday.
But of course, they have to play the games, starting with Japan Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. in the quarterfinals, and as Australia found out after losing to Serbia this morning, nothing is guaranteed.
Three points …
1) What if a game gets close? Through the group stage, Geno Auriemma has spread the minutes, with only Diana Taurasi averaging more than 20 a game. This means the Americans are well-rested, presumably, but it also means there’s no crunch time rotation in place. It’s one thing to dominate for all 40 minutes, but when it comes down to execution under pressure, familiarity is a wonderful thing.
Lack of familiarity isn’t an issue for most other national teams, as many groups have played together since their teens, advancing through regional and international competitions with much the same roster. So when a team like France needs a big play, its best five has not only played together a lot in Brazil, but has been doing so for years.
Of course, it’s not like Taurasi and Sue Bird and the other UConn alums have no history playing with each other, but there’s a difference at this level on this stage. As the men have shown, communication issues can bring a more talented team down to the level of a less talented, more cohesive opponent, and that opens to the door to a shocking upset.
2) Why this team is better than the younger USA teams. The traditional weaknesses of American women in international competitions, at all levels, have been twofold: Three-point shooting and ball handling.
The first comes in great part from the overwhelming and unnecessary emphasis on winning games at lower levels of play instead of spending more time on individual development. Since it’s much more effective for superior athletes to simply attack the rim, that’s what they do – but when that athletic superiority isn’t as great, the path to the basket gets crowded, and perimeter shooting becomes critical.
So the obvious strategy is to sit back in a zone and see if the U.S. can make outside shots, and when the Americans don’t, they are vulnerable.
On top of that, the lack of familiarity and practice time often makes USA Basketball teams turnover-prone, so the recipe for knocking off the U.S. is simple: Play a zone and force bad passes.
Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in Rio, this American team is shooting 42.5% from beyond the arc, and has a 2.1 assist/turnover ratio – which narrows any path to an upset win considerably. And arguably two of the best U.S. three-point shooters, Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore, are a combined six for 23 at this point, and can only be expected to get better.
3) When losing is winning … It’s called sandbagging, and it’s a grand Olympic tradition – and this is how it works.
The only games that matter, really, are in the medal round, which is an eight-team single-elimination bracket. And since the top four teams from each pool advance to the medal round, a quality team can pretty much count on moving on.
So, let’s say you’re the Spanish coach and you know you’re an underdog to the United States. Still, whatever plan that you feel gives you the best chance to beat the Americans is not something that needs to be shown in pool play – and thus the 103-63 Spanish loss to the U.S. After all, Spain is still in the medal round, and in fact is still on the opposite side of the bracket from the Americans, so absolutely nothing was lost by losing by 40.
And should Spain get by Turkey and Serbia (which lost to the U.S. by 26 in pool play), and face Geno’s crew in the gold medal game Saturday, expect a much different game plan, and a much closer game. After all, no one will remember who won the pool play game, but everyone will remember who won the last game in the Olympics.