Rosters for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team’s upcoming exhibition games against the UConn Huskies and the Louisville Cardinals were announced earlier this week.
The biggest takeaway? Breanna Stewart is back! And so is Angel McCoughtry.
When Team USA meets Connecticut on Jan. 27, Stewart, who will be playing competitive basketball for the first time since rupturing her Achilles, will highlight a roster featuring three more former Huskies, in Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles.
In addition to returning to Dynamo Kursk, McCoughtry also returns to the national team, participating in the Feb. 2 matchup against her alma mater, Louisville.
Other players who will compete for Team USA in these two contests are: Layshia Clarendon, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sylvia Fowles, Chelsea Gray, Kayla McBride, Nneka Ogwumike, Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson.
However, for all the good feelings that likely will be flowing through Storrs and Louisville, these “reunion” games do raise questions about the ultimate purpose of Team USA’s expanded training program and exhibition tour.
This summer’s announcement inspired excitement. USA Basketball responded to Sue Bird’s and Diana Taurasi’s proposal with seriousness, with the organization committing itself to sustaining the success of the women’s national team by providing players with renewed support. Yet, from the outside, it appears that Team USA is not approaching the exhibition games with the stated intention. While there is nothing wrong with allowing members of Team USA to take the court against their alma maters, are such celebratory showcases actually preparing Team USA to dominate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Is Team USA using the games to cultivate the connection needed to make the national team a true team, not just a collection of super-talented players?
Is the Team USA college tour serving its announced purpose?
Extenuating circumstances have made the Team USA training camp and college tour an imperfect experiment.
First, Team USA head coach Dawn Staley is unable to fulfill her duties. She is, understandably, preoccupied with winning another national championship with her South Carolina Gamecocks before winning another gold meal. Although assistant coaches Cheryl Reeve and Dan Hughes, in their capacity as acting co-coaches, certainly can steer Team USA ably, the absence of Staley prevents the team from developing the degree of cohesion desired. Similarly, many former and/or possibly-future members of Team USA are playing overseas, which prohibits them from playing consistently with the team, much less practicing.
Second, injuries have troubled Team USA’s team-building efforts. Most notably, the players most likely to power the national team to gold — 2018 and 2019 WNBA MVPs Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne — have been out of commission. While Stewart is returning, Delle Donne has not suited up during the college contests as she continues to rehab from three herniated discs in her back. In contrast, many players who have participated in Team USA’s training sessions and exhibition games are doing so after missing most, if not all, of the 2019 WNBA season. While Diana Taurasi (back), Seimone Augustus (knee) and Layshia Clarendon (foot) played sparingly during the 2019 season, Sue Bird (knee), Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave) and the aforementioned Stewart did not play at all in the WNBA in 2019.
In one sense, it is wonderful that Team USA is supporting these players as they return from injury or other absences. However, when a significant number of national team players are just getting back to competitive basketball, it seems that the training program cannot serve its purpose, which should be to foster the competitive environment needed to objectively determine those most deserving of traveling to Tokyo. If Team USA has decided to allow established national team stars to do what they need to do to be best prepared to again play in the Olympics, that’s okay. But doing so cuts against and somewhat undermines the program’s purpose.
Third, it would be encouraging to see USA Basketball cycle through more fresh faces. If a combination of injuries and overseas obligations prevent Team USA from establishing a close, cohesive team, USA Basketball should invite a greater variety of players to participate in at least parts of the training program — permitting WNBA veterans, emerging stars and ever-ready role players to try to earn a spot for the Olympics or future international competitions.
For instance, while everyone will be happy to see Angel McCoughtry back on the court, it is hard to imagine McCoughtry making the 2020 Olympic team. At her peak, “Olympic Angel” was better than the more heralded “Olympic Melo.” Yet, as with Carmelo Anthony, McCoughtry’s time as an integral international player likely has passed. Instead of scripting a homecoming game at Louisville, USA Basketball should offer an opportunity to someone who could more conceivably contribute in Tokyo or beyond. It is a bit crazy that Team USA would not want to see Alyssa Thomas wreaking havoc in red, white and blue. What about Dearica Hamby doing all the dirty work needed to demolish opponents? Additionally, it would exciting to watch Aerial Powers flying around the court for the Americans.
Regardless, Team USA will be overwhelming favorites at the Olympics
In the end, all this probably doesn’t matter.
In early November, the University of Oregon scored a historic win over Team USA, with Sabrina Ionescu putting on a thrilling shot-making clinic against her supposed superiors. Yet, any overwrought concerns about Team USA’s gold medal prospects would be an unnecessary overreaction. To put it simply, in the summer of 2020, Team USA will claim the services of two all-world, do-it-all wings in Stewart and Delle Donne. With their brilliance bolstered by the rim protection of Brittney Griner, another upset of Team USA suddenly seems unlikely, if not impossible.
These musings are not meant to dismiss the importance of Team USA’s training program. It remains an appreciated investment in American women’s basketball. Rather, these critiques are made in hopes that, as the expanded training program extends beyond the 2020 Olympic Games, Team USA begins to cultivate a sustainable team, encouraging both younger and veteran players to compete for the privilege to play for the United States on the international stage — and win!