ATHENS, Greece -- Basketball player Janeth Arcain left the
WNBA's Houston Comets this season just to make sure the entire
Brazilian Olympic team could train together before the Summer
Then there are the Russians. They've been together for most for
the year. Ditto for the Czech Republic and several other teams.
All of which is a major worry for the U.S. women, who had barely
more than a week together before landing in Athens on Wednesday.
Still, there's one key area where the Americans feel they hold the
"Definitely we're going to be the most talented team to take
the court,'' said guard Dawn Staley, who carried the flag for the
U.S. delegation in Friday night's opening ceremony. "We just have
to make sure we're on all cylinders when we do that.''
Therein lies the challenge for this team heading into Saturday's
opener against New Zealand. All 12 U.S. players are in the WNBA and
could not join the Olympic team until the league began a monthlong
break Aug. 1. Nine of the players trained together for part of the
spring, so it's not like they're starting from scratch.
Only five, however, appeared in all 13 exhibition games during
that period. Then they separated for three months.
"It is a concern,'' assistant coach Anne Donovan said. "But we
had good training in the spring and now we've been together for a
week. We haven't come together yet, and I think there's good and
bad in that.
"We'd like to see every day we get better, but hopefully a week
from now we'll be starting to peak at the right time.''
Staley said the coaches -- and fans -- will have to be patient.
All teams will play five games in the preliminary round. The top
four in each group advance to the medal round.
"We may not beat teams in the first quarter or the first two
quarters,'' Staley said. "We just have to stay strong. The coaches
have to understand we're not going to beat teams in the first half.
It's going to take maybe three, almost four quarters to beat teams.
"But we certainly will use our talent advantage.''
Here's a look at the field for the Olympic tournament:
Russia: The Russians have bounced back after failing to medal in
the 1996 and 2000 games. They finished second to the United States
in the 2002 world championships, losing 79-74, and won the 2003
European championship -- their first major title since the breakup
of the Soviet Union. At 6-feet-8, Maria Stepanova is the tallest
player in the women's field. Elena Baranova, a tougher rebounder
who plays for the New York Liberty, completed the roster when she
joined the team earlier this month.
Australia: Disappointed after losing the gold medal game to the
Americans in Sydney, the Opals return with a talented group led by
the Seattle Storm's Lauren Jackson and the Phoenix Mercury's Penny
Taylor. Jackson, the WNBA's MVP in 2003, starred as a 19-year-old
in Sydney. "She was a good player in 2000, but she was also a
kid,'' said Donovan, Jackson's coach in Seattle. "Now you're
looking at a woman who is 23 years old and much stronger
Brazil: Arcain alone makes Brazil dangerous. "I think she is
arguably the most versatile player in the WNBA,'' said U.S. forward
Tina Thompson, who played with Arcain in Houston. The Brazilians
also have veteran guard Helen Luz and good size, including 6-7
Alessandra Oliveira. Brazil won the silver medal in 1996 and took
the bronze in Sydney.
Czech Republic: This team would have been better if U.S. pro
Kamila Vodichkova were playing. She chose to stay with the Seattle
Storm this summer instead of training at home and wasn't named to
the team. There's still plenty of talent, including former
Vanderbilt standout Zuzana Klimesova. The Czechs lost only once in
last year's European championships, to Russia 59-56 in the gold
Japan and Korea: Both play a similar style that features snappy
passes, drives to the basket and then kickouts to the 3-point line.
This is the third straight appearance for Korea, which was fourth
in Sydney. Japan last made the Olympics in 1996.
China, New Zealand, Spain, Greece and Nigeria: China's Ye Li has
a famous boyfriend -- NBA and Chinese men's star Yao Ming. New
Zealand has a well-known coach in Tom Maher, who guided Australia
to the silver medal in Sydney and once coached the Washington
Mystics. Greece and Nigeria are first-time qualifiers.