Squad must overcome limited time together

Updated: August 13, 2004, 4:54 PM ET
Associated Press

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 Games.

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 edge.

"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:

Contenders

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 physically.''

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.

Potential spoilers

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 medal game.

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.

Also-rans

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.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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