- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The FIBA World Championship for Women is a big deal. Even if in the United States -- where the event has never been held -- it doesn't get much publicity. Sue Bird, expected to be Team USA's starting point guard, thinks the world championship is even harder to win than the Olympics.
"You're playing three games in a row, a break, three games in a row, a break, and then quarterfinals, semifinals, finals," Bird said. "It's a lot of games in a short period of time.
"And the teams there are usually better, by the nature of how the event selects them. The competition is harder; everything about it is more difficult. Mentally, it's a challenge."
The Americans lost their previous chance at taking this championship -- in 2006 -- when they fell in the semifinals to Russia. They went home with a bronze. Now Team USA, winner of the 2008 Olympic gold, is eager to regain the world championship title. The event, which is Sept. 23-Oct. 3 in the Czech Republic, comes right on the heels of the WNBA Finals. (If that five-game championship series goes the distance, it will end Sept. 21.)
With UConn's Geno Auriemma as Team USA head coach, preparation and strategy are in great hands. And considering the outstanding WNBA performances this season by some of the players expected to lead the Americans -- including Bird, Cappie Pondexter, Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles, Candice Dupree, Angel McCoughtry and Tina Charles -- things look very good for the Americans.
You might be sensing that I'm leading up to a "but " here. And, indeed, I am. That's because of Wednesday's announcement about the last four players added to the national team pool: Minnesota's Rebecca Brunson, Indiana's Ebony Hoffman, New York's Kia Vaughn and San Antonio's Jayne Appel.
Anybody who has paid attention to the WNBA this season likely had the same reaction that I did upon seeing this. Why on earth isn't Washington post player Crystal Langhorne in this pool?
There isn't a mandated number for the pool. It's now at 24, but it could have been more or less. But here is a 24-player working roster that includes three people -- Los Angeles' Candace Parker, Minnesota's Candice Wiggins and Washington's Alana Beard -- who are injured and can't compete in the world championship.
Meanwhile, not included is a player who is among the WNBA's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and efficiency rating. That simply doesn't make any sense.
Langhorne is currently averaging 16.4 points and 9.8 rebounds for the playoff-bound Mystics. The only player of the four named Wednesday whose numbers compare even a little to Langhorne is Brunson, who's at 11.6 ppg and 10.6 rpg.
Hoffman, who like Brunson is a starter, is at 8.0 and 4.0. Appel (3.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Vaughn (2.2, 1.4) are both reserves who right now don't stack up in any way to Langhorne.
So what's the deal? Auriemma said in a teleconference Wednesday that he thought Langhorne was impressive during her time with the national team last fall in a training camp in Washington, D.C., and on the subsequent trip to Russia. However, he said her size was a factor, especially because the 6-foot-5 Lisa Leslie has retired and the 6-4 Parker is out with a shoulder injury.
"Crystal being kind of an undersized post player, the biggest need that we have on this team right now is to find someone who can play that center position," Auriemma said. "[To have] enough size to compete with some of the teams we are going to have to beat in the world championship. We're just not big enough. With Candace Parker out, that makes it even more imperative that size is a tremendous issue for us. That being said, I think Crystal has a tremendous future with USA Basketball."
OK, but if Langhorne has a great future in international competition -- which I totally agree she does -- then why would she not be included in this pool? Just for the additional experience, if nothing else?
And the idea that the 6-2 Langhorne is just not "big" enough in comparison to 6-2 Hoffman, 6-3 Brunson, 6-4 Vaughn or 6-4 Appel that's not quite adding up, either.
"If she was a 6-5 center, then I would tell you she'd be looked at completely different," Auriemma said, "and it's got nothing to do with is she good enough as a player, is she a good enough rebounder and all those other things."
OK but none of the four who was added is 6-5, either. If the stats the WNBA teams list are accurate, Hoffman is the same height as Langhorne but weighs 25 pounds more. Brunson is an inch taller than Langhorne but weighs 13 pounds less. And as stated earlier, Vaughn's and Appel's performances in the WNBA this season don't suggest that they should even be in this conversation.
Look, Auriemma is not only an immensely talented coach, but an astute judge of talent and an uncanny predictor of what makes for good chemistry on a team. I can hardly remember any previous time in all the years I've covered women's basketball when I heard his assessment of such a situation and thought, "Huh?" He is one of the masters of his sport at any level or either gender, period.
Which is part of why this Langhorne omission is baffling. Of course, the coach doesn't pick the players for Team USA. A five-member selection committee does that.
National team director Carol Callan was also on the teleconference and said of Langhorne, "Without going into specifics on players -- I don't think that's something we want to do -- we have not added her to the list at this point. But she remains obviously in our minds as we move forward."
A non-answer. If you're not going to talk about specifics of players, what is the point of having a teleconference? And the list is not going to change between now and the world championship.
So what is the REAL reason or reasons that Langhorne isn't on this list? We can throw out a couple of theories.
Her alma mater, Maryland, has not exactly been known for its defense under Brenda Freese. Was Auriemma not impressed with the former Terp Langhorne's ability to defend? That seems like a stretch to me. She's in her third season out of college and has learned a lot.
Was there something she did or said that didn't sit well with Auriemma or the selection committee? Something that would suggest she wouldn't be a good fit in terms of chemistry? Again, that seems unlikely. To the contrary, Langhorne seems to me the type who would fit well on an Auriemma-coached team or a team coached by anybody, for that matter. She appears humble and hard-working.
Mystics coach Julie Plank said of Langhorne earlier this season, "She's a very smart player. She's totally unselfish. First in the gym, last to leave, super attitude. I call her the perfect 10."
So could there be some other thing at work here? In July, USA Basketball had to submit to FIBA a list of potential players for the world championship. And from what I was told by USA Basketball, Langhorne's name wasn't on the list then. Thus, she couldn't have been added this week.
If that's the case, it seems like somebody was asleep at the switch. Was Langhorne's name left off the list in July because there wasn't a timely recognition of how well she was playing?
If so, how did that happen? She was the WNBA's most improved player last season, so there was every reason to keep a close eye on her this summer. As of June 30, Langhorne was averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds, and WNBA followers were already talking about her as a potential MVP candidate. It would have been hard to have missed her progress.
I realize that some folks might be saying, "Oh, for heaven's sake, Voepel, you're sounding like you're Crystal Langhorne's mom! This is a great overall group of players. And Lang will get her shot at the 2012 Olympics if she continues to perform well."
But two points: First, I'll admit, it really does get under my skin when I think a deserving player gets short-changed on something. I don't care who she is, what college she went to, what pro team she's on. None of that matters to me in the slightest. It's about performance. Someone who was good enough to be in the pool of WNBA MVP candidates this season belongs in a 24-player pool for Team USA.
Second, this goes to a more general thought about USA Basketball. Usually, I think they've effectively picked the right players to compete for the United States over the years. It's hard to argue with their success record, especially since the 1980s.
But I do think that players, at times, have fallen through the cracks for various reasons. Maybe because they started their careers slowly, and when they blossomed, they weren't noticed soon enough or gauged accurately. Maybe because there were already established "favorites" at their positions. Maybe because their college coach didn't have much of a relationship with USA Basketball.
None of those things suggests any grand conspiracy. Obviously, it's impossible to never miss or make a mistake in evaluation. Especially when you are dealing with the wealth of talent that the United States has in women's basketball.
But the Becky Hammon situation is one that comes to mind. When you look at what she has ended up accomplishing in her pro career, it seems a shame that she had to go play for Russia to be on a senior national team. But you can figure out why it happened.
Hammon didn't really blossom until her sixth WNBA season, in 2004, after she'd battled back from an ACL injury the year before. So for the 2004 Olympics, Bird was the understudy to Dawn Staley at point guard, and scorers such as Sheryl Swoopes and Katie Smith were proven veterans.
The timing never seemed to work out very well for Hammon to get noticed or get a legitimate shot at making Team USA.
Even after she had such a terrific 2007 WNBA season in San Antonio, Hammon was overlooked by USA Basketball. Then there was kind of a half-hearted effort to reach out to her. By that point, Hammon had no reason to think she really had a chance.
That's when she turned to Russia. Whether you think that was right or wrong, Hammon didn't spurn Team USA to do it. She did it because she thought it was her only opportunity to experience playing in an Olympics or world championship.
Langhorne is only 23, and we're two years out from the London Olympics. So I'm not saying that this omission is going to keep her from a future with the national team. Neither am I saying that she's a sure thing for that.
But she earned a chance to be with the national team as the Americans prepare to cut to the 12 who will compete for the world championship. Her absence is an avoidable and glaring mistake.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.