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Notes and observations from Team USA’s exhibition games

United States' Tamika Catchings second from left, huddles with teammates Brittney Griner, left, Angel McCoughtry and Seimone Augustus, right, during the second half of an exhibition basketball game against Canada, Friday, July 29, 2016, in Bridgeport, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

In case you hadn’t already noticed, the WNBA is currently on a month-long break in lieu of this summer’s Rio Olympics. Many of the players remain hard at work, however, training with their respective national teams in preparation for the big games.

The situation is unique for the USA women’s national team in that the WNBA is an American league, so as opposed to other competing countries such as Spain, Canada, or France, Geno Auriemma and his coaching staff have relatively little time to get their ladies Olympic-ready. It’s offset somewhat, of course, by the fact that the USA women are by far the most talented squad in the pool, but it’s another challenge entirely to get a roster chock full of superstars and #1 options in the WNBA to be playing together as a cohesive unit.

Time is of the essence for Auriemma and Team USA, so it’s a good thing that USA Basketball scheduled its pre-Olympic showcase this past week: a cross-country tour that pitted the Americans against other top countries as an exhibition, which would also prove as valuable practice time for a team that needs to gel quickly. After games against France, Canada, Australia, and a select group of other American WNBA players, Team USA is ready for Rio. Let’s go over a few quick storylines from the showcase.

Team USA grew stronger as the showcase went on

The USA national team is in no dire need of raw talent. That much is certain. As with any team, though, this group of superstars needed to establish on-court chemistry, especially considering that most of them use the brunt of their respective WNBA teams’ volume.

Basically, despite having a wealth of terrific one-on-one scorers, Team USA is at its best when it moves the basketball quickly and crisply. It’s a process that wouldn’t happen overnight, but as the showcase progressed, the USA women began clicking more and more consistently on offense, and it reflects in the numbers.

Against France, they scored 113 points per 100 possessions; an enviable result for any WNBA team, but not nearly good enough for a roster of this caliber. Team USA inched that number up to 114 points per 100 possessions against Canada, before ending the showcase with a blistering 126 points per 100 possessions versus Australia.

United States’ Sue Bird, right, and Canada’s Tamara Tatham, left, during the first half of a women's exhibition basketball game, Friday, July 29, 2016, in Bridgeport, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

United States’ Sue Bird, right, and Canada’s Tamara Tatham, left, during the first half of a women’s exhibition basketball game, Friday, July 29, 2016, in Bridgeport, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

No matter how expected this pattern of results was, it’s still a good sign for Auriemma and his staff. By the time the final exhibition game rolled around, there was no single star of the show for Team USA, with five players scoring in double digits and all but two playing at least 12 minutes. This is what will ultimately determine how far they go in the Olympics: not the star power of their individuals, but the pure quality of their depth.

Australia is still USA’s most dangerous opponent

Despite being down their greatest player ever, the Australia Jayco Opals still figure to be one of the toughest teams in the women’s tournament. They’ve won two bronze medals and three silvers dating back to 1996, and if the final game of the showcase is any indication, they’ll be right back in the mix of teams looking to knock Team USA off their throne.

The Opals have plenty of names that will sound familiar to WNBA faithful. With Penny Taylor, Erin Phillips, and Leilani Mitchell on the perimeter, they’re certainly not lacking in outside shooting. Their biggest weapon (literally) is center Elizabeth Cambage, who, at 6’9”, is a low-post presence unlike any USA will face in the tournament.

It’s no surprise, then, that Australia gave the Americans a fair fight in the showcase. The Opals shot 10-24 from 3, while Cambage towered over USA centers Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles and scored a game-high 22 points. Fortunately, the Americans were able to use their depth to their advantage, throwing Brittney Griner at Cambage and finally getting the Opals center into foul trouble.

What was a close game at the half turned into a 15-point victory for Team USA, who used a 35-point third quarter to pull away from the Opals for good.

The future is bright

Despite the expected challenge from the Aussies, the closest game of the exhibition series was the first, when the USA select team gave the national team all they could handle. It took four free throws from Maya Moore in the final seconds to put away the pesky young select team, who won the first and fourth quarters and was actually winning the game with just over a minute to play.

Granted, this was the first game of the showcase, so the USA national team was not playing its best basketball, but what does that say about the select team? A roster that featured just one player over 25 years old (Sugar Rodgers, who is 26) came out aggressive, determined, and unafraid.

Despite giving up years and years of experience, the select team looked, for most of the game, more like the group that was headed to Rio. Their quick, athletic guards (Jewell Loyd and Odyssey Sims in particular) exploited their aging national team counterparts off the dribble again and again. Power forward Natasha Howard was knocking down a consistent 3-ball that not many fans knew she even had. And the team as a whole attempted 21 free throws to the national team’s 12.

To put that last bit into perspective, Team USA shot a total of 79 free throws in their remaining three games. France, Canada, and Australia combined to shoot 28. In other words, outdoing the USA women’s national team at the foul line is pretty difficult.

More than anything, though, this All-American contest showed just how much talent is in the national team pipelines. It’s been a concern among fans for a while now, and it’s now staring the USA basketball committee right in the face: The national team is getting old, with Tamika Catchings retiring after this WNBA season and it being highly unlikely that Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Lindsay Whalen, and Seimone Augustus are all still playing in 2020.

That’s the entire USA backcourt.

It seems fitting, then, that Loyd and Sims are primed to take the reins soon, and there’s plenty of up-and-coming guard talent in the WNBA that will be joining them. Look for this process to begin in the 2018 FIBA World Championships, when USA Basketball will have a better idea of what the future holds for their aging guard core.

For right now, though? Team USA is ready for Rio.

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