Wealth of luxuries for Team USA
DENVER -- USA Basketball could stick with just the 11 players it named to the Olympic women's team Friday and still win the gold medal in London. The Americans would be in splendid shape even if they didn't round out the roster to the requisite dozen.
"We actually have everything covered, don't we?" U.S. national coach Geno Auriemma said Friday, talking about the Olympic team as part of his double duty with his Connecticut squad at this women's Final Four.
Indeed, Team USA has three players who already have won two Olympic gold medals (Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings). Four others (Swin Cash, Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus) have one Olympic gold. The other four on the squad (Angel McCoughtry, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen) will be first-time Olympians, but all were part of the 2010 world championship team that won it all.
With that much firepower spread out to cover every spot on the floor, the Americans could just spot the rest of the world a player. Of course, they're not going to do that. So the last position, which will be filled this summer, could be used as much for the purpose of preparing for the next Olympics as it is for competing in these upcoming Games.
"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, 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?'"
In which case, how about if that last spot is used for a young player who has size and skills virtually unlike anyone else in the world? Somebody who, like Auriemma, is going to be very busy at this women's Final Four?
"Everybody knows that I'm a big fan of Brittney Griner," Auriemma said of the 6-foot-8 Baylor junior center, whom he coached on a European tour last summer. "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 teams with that size? Absolutely. Do I think a 6-8 kid that is playing this weekend could help us be even better? Yeah. That's the luxury that the United States has, isn't it? That we have the ability to field these kinds of teams in basketball. As we should; we're the preeminent basketball team in the world."
Still, Auriemma grinned and added, "We're 33-0 in our last three Olympic Games, so we gotta get better than that."
Sounds a lot like how he has joked in the past about trying to top perfection at UConn, which is in its fifth consecutive Final Four. How do you improve on 39-0? By going 39-0 two years in a row. Auriemma's Huskies did that in 2008-09 and 2009-10, with Moore and Charles on those teams.
They are the past two WNBA rookies of the year and part of the young guard as first-time Olympians. If Griner were added, she would become the first active college player on the U.S. women's hoops team at the Olympics since 1988, when Maryland's Vicky Bullett and Tennessee's Bridgette Gordon were both rising seniors on the Seoul Games squad that won gold.
Griner impressed Auriemma when she competed with the national team last summer, and she's had a tremendous season for her undefeated Baylor squad this year. However, international competition is still a relatively new thing for her. How does Griner rank against the world's best centers?
"I don't know; she's never played against them," Auriemma said. "That's one of things down the road we're going to be able to say definitively. We know what Tina and Sylvia and Candace can do, because they've done it. Certainly, Brittney is the best college center and one of the best who has played college basketball. Where she fits in among the pros that are much older than her and more experienced -- that's something that will be real evident to us once that happens."
Few doubt Griner is ready to hold her own in that regard. But for those who might think this Olympic announcement, and her potential future on this U.S. team, might weigh on Griner's mind during the Final Four ... it won't. Asked about it earlier in the NCAA tournament, Griner said her focus is 100 percent on Baylor and trying to win a national championship. And while the Olympics would be a huge honor, she's not thinking about that now.
But for anyone who is already thinking far ahead, this Final Four seems certain to show more than just Griner as a future Olympian. She's the only one in the mix for 2012, but Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, Baylor's Odyssey Sims, and Stanford's Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike all seem very likely to be in the talent pool for 2016.
If you were going to find anything that might be even a mild concern for the 2012 team, it's that there will be no 20-something point guard (or player who is experienced with easily sliding over to point guard at the Olympic level) for the Americans. Bird is 31, while Whalen and Taurasi turn 30 in May and June, respectively.
That's not a concern for these Olympic Games, because there are so many potential ball handlers even beyond those three. But it does mean no youngster is apprenticing under Bird and Whalen in London. However, the aforementioned potential 2016 (and beyond) Olympians include two exceptional young point guards in the junior Diggins and the sophomore Sims. By 2016, both will have WNBA experience before potentially playing in the Olympics.
So it is all good news for the present and future of the U.S. women's hoops team. And Griner might well end up being a part of both.