Team USA in a period of transition as it chases Olympic berth

The last time Team USA had to qualify for the Olympics in women's basketball … the Americans didn't actually play in the Olympics.

We don't expect most of the kiddos on the squad in Chile this week, trying to earn their spot for the Beijing Games next year, to know this. It was 1980, when the U.S. team didn't go to the Moscow Games because of the American-led boycott due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Of course, in a bit of political irony -- if you want to call it that -- the United States since then has invaded Afghanistan, too. Team USA coach Anne Donovan could tell her team all about it, since she was one of the players who missed an opportunity to compete in the 1980 Games.

But Donovan, no doubt, will be too busy to give many history lessons. She'll be trying to steer Team USA through the FIBA Americas Championship, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday. NBA TV will televise all of Team USA's games, giving women's hoops junkies a fix in this "how will we cope?" period between the end of the WNBA season and the start of college hoops.

"We have to understand what we're up against -- how hard we're going to have to play and how well we need to play together," veteran Katie Smith said of the road ahead for the Americans, if they hope to defend the gold they've won at the past three Olympics. "We have to get people incorporated who haven't necessarily played a lot of USA Basketball, or at least not with the senior team.

"But we still have several players who've been to the Olympics and [World Championship]. However, there will be different people needing to step up. In some cases, that might not have been their role before, but it will need to be now. I think it's exciting."

Donovan caught her share of criticism last year for Team USA's loss to Russia in the World Championship semifinals. Australia beat the Russians for the gold medal and the automatic bid to Beijing, forcing the Americans into this strange and unfamiliar position of needing to qualify. In the Olympics from 1984 to 2004, the Americans received automatic bids by being the host nation and/or the defending world/Olympic champion.

Seven of the 12 players on this team -- and eight of 13 if you count alternate Candice Wiggins -- weren't even born until after 1980. Sue Bird was born in October of that year. The oldest players on the U.S. roster, Smith and DeLisha Milton-Jones, both turned 6 in 1980. So, yes, going through the qualifying event is totally new ground.

But it fits in with the reality that this is a transition period for the U.S. national team program, just as is the case in the WNBA. This past season was the first in which neither Sheryl Swoopes nor Lisa Leslie played any factor. Leslie missed the entire season on maternity leave, while Swoopes struggled through just three games before being sidelined with a back injury.

The Americans will compete in Chile without them and Tamika Catchings, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the WNBA playoffs.

Last year, Leslie missed the World Championship and Swoopes was far from 100 percent. So the transition definitely started then. And the Americans lost for the first time in 12 years, which is why they have to play now.

This group is a blending of the old guard (Smith, Milton-Jones, Tina Thompson), the middle ground (Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash -- aka three-fifths of the 2002 UConn starting five, all past Olympians) and the emerging stars of Team USA (Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter and collegians Candace Parker and Courtney Paris).

Also on this squad are Sacramento Monarchs teammates Rebekkah Brunson, who provides needed rebounding and defense inside, and Kara Lawson, a tough-cookie competitor, team player and perimeter shooter. And another collegian, the versatile Wiggins, is an alternate.

"Brazil [site of the 2006 World Championship] was really the start of the transition period," Taurasi said. "The new kids like Candace came in, and even people like myself and Sue had different roles than we did in 2004 [at the Athens Games].

"There comes a point with any team where there's a new crop of players and you have to make changes."

There is the possibility that the United States won't win in Chile, in which case the last chance to reach the Games would be at the 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament next June. Needless to say, USA Basketball and the WNBA officials don't even want to think about that.

Provided Team USA does earn an Olympic spot, how similar will this current roster look to the one that would go to Beijing? Injuries are the biggest X factor. Assuming Leslie returns as her usual self next WNBA season and stays healthy, she will certainly regain her spot. No one has been a more productive player on both ends of the court for Team USA -- over the course of many years -- than Leslie. And she has plenty of gold to show for that.

So does Swoopes, but there is more uncertainty for her due to her injury and age -- and the fact that she will have more competition than ever before for a roster spot. The injury issue is also a big question mark for Catchings, as rehab from an Achilles injury really cannot be rushed.

"It all depends on how her body heals; I just feel for her," Smith said of Catchings. "Injuries are a job hazard, unfortunately. She's had an ACL before, so she knows about tough rehab. She's a fighter, and she works so hard. I believe she'll be back as good as ever. We're going to miss her while she's not there, though, because Catch is such a huge part of USA Basketball. Hopefully, she's back at it next summer. We'll keep our fingers crossed."

Cheryl Ford played on the World Championship team last year. The knee injury that kept her out much of the second half of this WNBA season and limited her during the playoffs will require significant rest. Will she be 100 percent next summer and stay healthy?

Ford's Detroit Shock teammate Deanna Nolan would be a no-brainer for Team USA -- if she committed to the program. Nolan has chosen her professional overseas career instead of USA Basketball, even if she hasn't come right out and said those words. I'm not criticizing her; that's her choice to make.

For the players who do commit fully to the U.S. program, it's a big commitment. Both because of the time involved and overseas income lost.

"There's really no time off," Taurasi said. "You don't really get much of a mental or physical break. I'm trying to think in the last three or four years if I've ever had a month and a half off. I don't think so, and I don't know that that's very good.

"But USA Basketball is an honor to play for. Any chance I get to be on the team, I will take that over any money I could earn overseas."

As Team USA competes in Chile, fans will be watching to see what they think of the combinations on court and theorizing about what other players potentially could be included. The collegians on the team obviously won't be on the college tour that will take place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, so that roster will look different from this one.

"The 'old' are still here, but the 'young' are really coming in and establishing themselves and becoming the face of the team," Smith said. "Which is great. It's needed. It just keeps it rolling. You get your years in, and then the new ones come in, and hopefully everyone learns something from each other."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.