Team USA ready to take on the world

Those involved with USA Basketball tend to lament the lack of time that the American team gets to spend together preparing for major events, especially compared to most other nations.

But one of the things that's interesting about the 2014 version that starts play in the 2014 FIBA World Championship on Saturday in Turkey (ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET) is how much familiarity actually is a part of this squad -- at least pods of familiarity.

Three players from each of the top two teams in the WNBA this year -- league champion Phoenix and Minnesota -- are on the U.S. team. Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Candice Dupree are coming off their 3-0 sweep of Chicago in the WNBA Finals, which concluded Sept. 12. Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus have won two WNBA titles together with the Lynx, and made it to Game 3 of the Western Conference finals this year.

So that's half of the U.S. squad made up of two groups of players who have practiced and competed together since May. Among those six stars are the 2014 WNBA MVP (Moore), the Finals MVP (Taurasi), a player who shot 66.3 percent from the field during the postseason (Dupree), and the league's defensive player of the year (Griner).

Meanwhile, there's the familiarity of playing in the same college system, if not necessarily at the same time: Five players with UConn ties -- Taurasi, Moore, Tina Charles, Sue Bird and current Huskies junior Breanna Stewart -- will be directed by U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, who also happens to be UConn's coach.

Then there are former Baylor teammates Griner and Odyssey Sims, who are reunited again. They played three years together, winning the NCAA title in 2012.

"I miss playing with BG," Tulsa's Sims said Thursday. "So I'm glad to have her back."

Griner is probably the player observers are most eager to watch, as it's her first major event with USA Basketball. She's coming off a WNBA season in which she became the league's most imposing defensive presence inside, and it's at that end of the court the Americans most need her.

That's not to downplay at all the offensive skills brought by Griner, who averaged 15.6 points this season for the Mercury. It's just that she has proven to be a quick study at the pro level in terms of how best to use her advantages defensively. She blocked a league-record 129 shots this season.

Perennial defensive star Tamika Catchings and fellow experienced international players Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker are missing this tournament with injuries, making Griner all the more valuable.

"I think my role will be blocking shots, playing defense, and protecting the paint," she said. "I'm happy with that, because I love defense."

Griner suffered an eye injury in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, missed the clinching third game, and just joined the U.S. squad in Istanbul. She practiced with the team for the first time Thursday.

Auriemma said he was impressed with how consistent the pro version of Griner has become, as opposed to the good-but-still-learning college player she was when she played for the U.S. squad on an exhibition tour in Italy in 2011.

"She moves so much better," he said. "There's just a lot that she is going to be able to add to our team, defensively and offensively."

Griner represents the "new blood" on this U.S. team, as she, Sims, Stewart and Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike are all playing in their first world championship tournament.

Whether the team should have had another first-timer is a debate that got more fuel when Tulsa's Skylar Diggins, a first-team All-WNBA player in her second season, was cut. San Antonio's Danielle Robinson and Indiana's Briann January also were cut.

That none of those three 20-something guards is on the team, but Bird is -- despite being almost 34 and coming off a season in which she had the second-lowest scoring average (10.6) and lowest assist average (4.0) of her WNBA career -- has prompted questioning from some U.S. fans.

They wonder if it would have made more sense to have at least one more of the younger guards -- along with Sims -- on this team in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. That's definitely a reasonable point to discuss, and as long as Auriemma is the U.S. coach, there will be debate about the "UConnization" of the national team.

Ultimately, USA Basketball opted to bring back the steady veteran Bird, who is the first American player to compete in four world championships.

Auriemma doesn't make the final call on the roster; that's decided by a five-member committee that gets feedback from him. Auriemma, in his second term as national team coach, has said that the team make-up doesn't necessarily reflect the 12 best players. Rather, it's about which 12 play the best together.

The Americans lost an exhibition game Sunday to France 76-72, when Griner was not yet with the team. Such defeats are so rare -- even in so-called "friendly" games -- that it had to have set off some alarm bells. Still, the Americans talked afterward about how it probably did them some good, helping them guard against complacency.

So will they perform to their potential in Group D play, which includes China -- the United States' opponent on Saturday -- Angola and Serbia? They probably don't have to be all that sharp to advance. But quarterfinal and semifinal play could prove more challenging. It was in the semifinal round that the Americans lost to Russia at the 2006 world championship; the U.S. finished with the bronze medal.

That's never going to be an acceptable color for the U.S. team, of course. The Americans are always the favorites, and anything less than the championship would be a big disappointment.

That's a weight that has been on players such as Bird and Taurasi for a long time, but one they've readily accepted. Now, for Griner and the other youngsters, it's time to shoulder some of that load.