While the Olympics fall at the perfect time for NBA players, who would otherwise be enjoying their summer time off, it comes at an awkward time for WNBA athletes, who are right in the middle of their regular season. Thus, the season comes to a screeching one-month halt. It also means there’s not much time for practice. Luckily, many of the players are familiar with each other, especially this summer, as half of the team and the head coach are UCONN Huskies. Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Ashja Jones, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi – all 2012 Olympians – all played for Geno Auriemma, coach of this year’s women’s national team, during their college years.
Transitioning from WNBA play to the Olympics can be a tricky situation, but so much familiarity has made the adjustment easier, especially for the six UCONN Huskies.
“We’re just all very familiar with each other and very familiar with the system, so it makes it a lot easier for the coaches not to have to teach all the time,” said Cash. “We can really help our peers out. I think that’s the one advantage of us not having a lot time to practice that will help our team.” “Especially playing for Coach Auriemma, I know what he expects out of me,” said Charles after a game against the Chicago Sky, the last before the WNBA’s Olympic break. “I know what he’s gonna need out of me, so that’s what I’m gonna bring, I’m gonna bring energy. Things that I do here with my team, it’s gonna be easier [with Team USA] because I know my role’s gonna change. I don’t need to score 20 and 10. I just have to go out and do the little things because the vets establish everything for us.”
One of those vets is Cash, who competed and won gold in the 2004 Olympics in Greece. “It’s been a tough first half [of the season] for me, the adjustment playing here, so I try not to focus on the Olympics as much this first half of the season,” she said. Cash is in her first season with the Chicago Sky. “I try to focus on Chicago, focus on myself and figure out what I need to do to help the team. But now it’s like a switch goes off, and your mind goes to your job of what you need to do in London. I think that’s the perspective and approach that all the women have taken, that you can’t look to far ahead, that your job is here.”
So far, all is well with Team USA, who currently sit at 4-0 after exhibition games against Brazil, Great Britain, Croatia and Turkey. While foreign competition on the men’s side has improved drastically since 1992, that’s not the case for the ladies, who have dominated without falter since 1996. Winning is the norm for the Team USA women’s basketball, and most certainly for those who are UCONN alumni. “I think that we all bring a certain work ethic and a certain winning mentality,” Cash said when asked about Huskies’ common trait. “I think we’re all different obviously in our ways in our games, but anyone that’s ever had someone that’s gone to UCONN, they understand that we compete at the highest level and want to win championships. That’s the expectation that was instilled in us from a very young age.”
The expectation has held up, no doubt. They’ve won four straight gold medals, hold a 72-1 record in international play since 1996 and are currently on a 33-game winning streak in Olympic competition dating back to 1992. “The will to win, the will to compete just to get things done, being coachable and understanding Coach Auriemma which will make it easy on us six,” added Charles. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun. Hopefully we can see each other on the court at the same time. I’m looking forward to being around the group of girls. They’re all really nice, and I think even if we didn’t all go to UCONN together, I would have been drawn to them. It’s really a unique situation so we definitely want to take advantage of it.” Along with his rival, former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Auriemma is as decorated and accomplished as they come, not just in women’s college basketball, but in men’s hoops, too. Of the six undefeated seasons women’s college basketball, UCONN and Auriemma own four of them. Bird, Cash, Jones and Taurasi were there in 2002, and Charles and Moore made it happen in 2009 and 2010.
Playing for Auriemma as Olympians will be a bit different than as collegians, however. “In college, I needed a lot of development, so I know he had to yell at me, he had to get under my skin to bring it out of me,” said Charles. “His level of expectation was so high for me. For myself I didn’t have it like that. But he set the bar for me and now that’s where I’m at. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I can always learn from Coach Auriemma.” “It’s kind of funny because he can stay stuff and I’m like, ‘I’m not in college anymore,’” said Cash. “He’s able to talk to us, we’re able to talk and communicate as adults, and it’s a little different I know for him, because he’ll see us like, ‘oh, those are still the girls from school.’ But he gives us a lot of leeway because he understands that we’ve been taught well. He knows he has certain expectations of us, and we have them of ourselves.”
While the debate about the Dream Team or 2012 has ceased for the most part (especially as 2012 has been put to tough tests by Brazil and Argentina in exhibition play already), putting this year’s women’s team up against USA Women’s of the past is actually an adequate argument. Along with the Huskies, Seimone Augustus, Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry, Candace Parker and Lindsay Whalen round out the loaded roster.
“We’re just as deep as they were. We’re just as competitive. I think both teams definitely want to get that gold. But me being on this team, I would say we would beat that team just to start something,” said Charles jokingly. Cash added: “The one thing about this team is that it’s really unique. Even from our team in 2004 that I played on, I just think that this team is pretty deep. We’re probably gonna be full-courting up on both sides of the ball. I just think that we have the athleticism, the quickness, the length, the size, so I would put this right up there as one of the best teams, but you gotta get out there and win gold before you can start talking about which team is better than the other.”
We’ll see how they stack up July 28, when they open up Olympic play with a game against Croatia. Anything less than gold would be a major disappointment, but it’s hard to see a loss happening. Especially with Auriemma and the Huskies on board. Rarely – if ever – have they failed to live up to expectations.