One key question for every nation in the Women's Olympic Basketball Tournament
TOKYO (Japan) - With the action soon getting underway at the Tokyo Olympics, it's time to look at some of the key questions for each competing nation.
All 12 competing countries aspire to make as deep a run as possible in the tournament. But what are the factors and players who could play the most critical role in their team's success or failure?
How will the Opals cope without Liz Cambage?
If you look back down the years, there have been few more dominant individual tournament displays than the one that the center produced for Australia at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018. She put her nation on her back in Tenerife to propel them to the Final. Cambage also loves to make headlines at the Olympics - from her dunk at London 2012 to her moving into the Top 5 all-time single- game scoring chart with 37 points against Japan in Rio.
Sadly, the centerpiece of Australia's podium bid has withdrawn and will not be participating. Can Australia cope without her? Well, they should be able to - but only if everyone steps up collectively in the scoring and rebounding stakes in particular. The preparation victory against USA was a great sign and tremendous win in her absence. The central issue is whether in those clutch moments in Tokyo 2020, when they no longer have the ultimate go-to player, others have the quality to execute. We will all miss having such a box-office star on board. Not just the Opals!
Can Belgium recapture their brilliant ball movement again?
Emma Meesseman remains the standout leader for Belgium and is one of the world's best. However, Belgium are at their collective best when they move the ball effectively - with both purpose and confidence. They showed that they are capable of on the global stage by making the Semi-Finals of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup with real flair.
It does seem that opponents have spent more time trying to shut down their ability to move the ball and some other factors are at work, too. But with their rivals inevitably focusing in very hard on Meesseman, as you would expect, their ability to move the ball and find open shooters will be critical. They showed signs of this at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket, but they have to turn up the dial on the crispness and energy of that superb passing game they have in them. If they do, it could blow teams away and it is such a joy to watch. Easier said than done of course!
Who is handling the ball for Canada in the big moments?
Canada had a bit of a nightmare at the FIBA Women's AmeriCup last month in Puerto Rico. If they are to make amends and show why they're ranked 4th in the World, they need to post a strong showing in Tokyo. Could their success hinge on who is handling the ball in the clutch moments - and especially if they do make a deep run and it's crunch time with the game's fate on the line?
They have talented guards, but arguably not the obvious standout choice that other nations have in the playmaking spot. They have the likes of Shay Colley, Shaina Pellington, Kia Nurse, Nirra Fields and so on, but who will be the one that will execute the plays and make it work under intense pressure? It's a fascinating question because, in the case of Nurse for example, you probably want someone else getting it into her hands at the right time and in the right spot.
Is there enough offensive firepower in the backcourt for China?
With China being touted as tournament dark horses due to their work in the Olympic qualifiers in Belgrade when they went unbeaten and claimed the scalp of Spain, it seems universally accepted that they have no problems on the wings or in the frontcourt. In fact, their frontline could justifiably be labelled as one of the best rotations in the competition.
But if Ting Shao, Yueru Li, Xu Han and Co are ready to get it done alongside Meng Li on the wing, does China have enough in the backcourt to make the podium? There will be a lot of responsibility on Liwei Yang to produce. However, if she is not in any rhythm, then China could be a bit too low on backcourt scoring options.
Does France have the mental strength to bounce back from their Euro setback?
France are stacked with so much talent. They have such a good mixture of experience and youth. They also had much-needed momentum heading into that FIBA Women's EuroBasket Women Final in Valencia. Then the wheels came off as they lost to Serbia and faced the all too familiar story of falling just short. It was a tough situation and disappointment to lose that fifth Final in a row.
The positive thing for France is that they can bounce back. In a normal situation without the pandemic, they would have had to have sit and stewed for some time about what happened in Spain. However, they have a great opportunity to show that they have the mental strength and character to make a good run in this tournament and maybe can evoke shades of London 2012 when they made the title game itself. Do they got what it takes?
Can Japan gang rebound and defend the post?
So many things have gone wrong for Japan since the start of the pandemic, including the prospect of being without any fans to give them an important edge on home soil. Perhaps the biggest blow has been the loss of Ramu Tokashiki to injury; her absence leaves a massive void in the paint. At any tournament down the years, the question of frontcourt depth and quality is always raised due to Japan's reliance on guard play and their 'run-and-gun' ethos. But with a WNBA performer and such a great character as Tokashiki, the answer in recent times has always been that they are well served enough to be super competitive.
Now that Tokashiki is not there, Japan are going to have to come together as a team and gang rebound like never before. They will also have to find a way to defend the post effectively because teams will target that potential soft spot they now have under the basket. There is plenty of work to do for their impressive playcaller Tom Hovasse to find an effective strategy without his prize asset to utilize.
Does Korea have enough scoring options in the team to keep pace?
Korea were once something of an Asian basketball power and those days are long gone, but they do have some players who are capable of putting on a show on the game's biggest stages. Look no further than WNBA center Ji Su Park or team leader Hyejin Park for example. The question is whether they have enough scoring options across the whole team to keep pace with their opponents during the initial Group phase. Their potential struggle ahead was laid bare at the FIBA Women's Qualifying Tournaments in Belgrade last year when they struggled to score a little over 60 points per game and that is simply unlikely to be enough to deliver success or progress in Tokyo.
Can Nigeria look after the ball better?
Nigeria made everyone sit up and take notice of their return to the global stage three years ago at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Tenerife. They were excellent and it laid the way for their Continental success and also taking this precious ticket to Tokyo. However, there was a particular concern when they stepped out at the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournaments in Belgrade and that was their ability to take care of the basketball.
Turning the ball over almost 20 times per game is way too high. If they repeat that in what is a tough group in the Japanese capital, they will suffer and most likely, be brutally punished. Japan maybe offers the African champs their best chance of a win, but their opponents will be swarming all over the Nigerian guards. If they don't handle that ball pressure, the curtain will fall on their campaign after the opening phase.
Can Puerto Rico stay competitive in games until the latter stages?
The scenes of pure joy emanated from the court when Puerto Rico beat Brazil at the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournaments in Bourges to effectively book their first-ever place at the event will live long in the memory. But that does not mean that Puerto Rico will simply be happy to be in Tokyo and want to be glorified tourists. They want to still try and cause an upset - even if they are massive underdogs.
The incentive is more history and being part of a first Olympic victory. It is not impossible, but it looks potentially out of reach. Therefore, head coach Jerry Batista may be looking at the first clear task - can Puerto Rico still be competitive heading into the last quarter of games and then into the closing minutes to at least give themselves a shot at glory? That probably means extreme discipline early in games, making sure they don't get blown away. They have some experience and quality players, but need to avoid being overawed by the occasion and, on the flip-side, try not to be too cautious in their game plan, either.
Do Serbia have enough gas left in the tank?
There are two reasons that Serbia were recently crowned the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 champions. The first was having the special talent and leadership of TISSOT MVP Sonja Vasic who posted some monumental displays of poise and playmaking abilities. The second and most important in a Tokyo context is that they turned up their pressure defense to another level. They squeezed teams hard. They rinsed opposing guards with incessant pressure. It was relentless.
After such a euphoric peak on the court and off the floor after being given an audience with their nation's prime minister and civic reception, can they raise themselves again? It might be difficult. What could be a determining factor as to whether they can take another Olympic medal having landed bronze on debut four years ago is whether they have enough gas left in the tank to play with that same awesome level of defensive intensity.
Who is ready to do the dirty work for Spain?
Despite the fact they finished in a disappointing seventh place on home soil at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket last month, Spain could have progressed to the Semi-Finals but lost a tight one against Serbia. Small margins. Small details. While the return of the brilliant Alba Torrens super-charges their offensive capabilities, there is still a question over whether they have enough players able to do that all-important dirty work.
Defensively, Spain are usually very solid. But Laura Gil stands out now for her ability to do that dirty work. She used to have Laura Nicholls alongside her doing that same job and in tandem, they were super effective. Not always seen or appreciated, head coach Lucas Mondelo is acutely aware of that deficit without Nicholls. Meanwhile, Marta Xargay was always a defensive powerhouse too, ready to put her body on the line. They have a great chance to show that their demise has been exaggerated, but some players maybe need to turn up the volume off the ball to ensure this becomes reality.
Will anything distract USA from their focus and current status as champions-elect?
Another Olympic title is right there for this star-laden USA roster if they want it. Surely the only question is whether they can be distracted by something that makes them lose focus, because talent-wise they look about as close to unbeateable as you can get. It may be something out of leftfield perhaps, but if nothing out of the ordinary happens, this is only about Coach Dawn Staley, her staff and the players keeping their eyes squarely fixed on the prize. If this team does not stand on the top of the podium at the end of the competition, it would be a surprise of epic proportions.