Breaking down the Opals' Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Having missed out on a medal in Rio in 2016, the path to Olympic redemption continues for the Opals this week as they head to France for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Bourges.

Six members of the 2016 team will feature as the Opals look to book their spot in Tokyo, with Liz Cambage aiming to reach a third Olympics after starring in 2012 and 2016.

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A couple of spanners have already been thrown in the works, with Jenna O’Hea and Nicole Seekamp forced out through injury, replaced by Sara Blicavs and Tessa Lavey respectively. However, that both of those players were injury replacements speaks to the strength in depth that the Opals possess. Lavey is a 2016 Olympian and two-time World Cup medallist, whilst Blicavs was a member of the FIBA Asia Cup squad in both 2017 and 2019, medalling on both occasions.

Currently ranked 2nd in the world, the Opals appear to be locks to qualify as one of the top three teams in a group featuring 5th ranked France, 15th ranked Brazil, and 23rd ranked Puerto Rico. However, playing the host nation in the opener means the Opals will need to hit the ground running to avoid putting themselves under any undue pressure against Brazil and Puerto Rico.

Fortunately, a number of the Opals have found themselves in outstanding form in recent times. 2019 WNBA Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell has dished and swished her way to 15.9 points and 5.2 assists per game in leading Southside to the WNBL’s #1 seed, whilst backcourt partner Katie-Rae Ebzery is producing 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per contest to sit in the upper echelon in both categories.

Being based in Poland, Bec Allen has flown under the radar slightly this season, but the sharpshooter leads Arka Gdynia in scoring in EuroLeague with 14.5 points per game. Allen has been exemplary from deep, shooting an impressive 51% from three-point land despite her team sitting at 3-9 with two group matches remaining.

Meanwhile, in the paint, Liz Cambage is still a superstar (deal with it), and will be supported by a group that mixes the youth of the returning Alanna Smith as well as Ezi Magbegor with the experience of Cayla George and Marianna Tolo. France and Brazil both possess a good amount of size on their rosters, but containing Cambage and Co. will be a stern test for both sides.

The Format

Fairly simple, really. Australia, Brazil, France, and Puerto Rico play each other once. The top three teams advance to the Olympics, whilst the bottom-placed team will have to wait until 2024 for their next shot at Olympic glory. Across four groups, ten teams will qualify – Japan and the United States will also compete, despite having already qualified as hosts and World Cup winners respectively. As such, only the top two teams will qualify from their groups.

The Opposition

France

FIBA World Ranking: 5

Path to Bourges: Finished 2nd at EuroBasket 2019

2016 Olympics: 4th (lost to USA in semi-final, lost to Serbia in bronze medal playoff)

Silver medallists at last year’s EuroBasket, France look set to pose the biggest challenge of any team the Opals will face in this week-long tournament. Although they have been noted underperformers at World Cup level, failing to medal since a bronze in 1953, the Olympics is another matter for the French. Having picked up a silver medal at London in 2012 and finished fourth four years ago in Rio, they have actually outperformed the Opals (3rd and 5th respectively) in each of those tournaments – and who could forget the battle at London 2012 featuring Belinda Snell’s half-court heave to send the game into overtime!?

Flush with creative stars with a penchant for the spectacular, the French side has at times struggled to incorporate this side of their game into their performances – women’s basketball expert Paul Nilsen once compared them to a Volkswagen that could be a Ferrari in that they were operationally sound but lacking in any sort of excitement. However, that hasn’t stopped them from going deep into tournaments with regularity, and in this situation, does it really matter? They’re here to qualify for the Olympics, and to do that, they merely need to finish in the top 3 from a group of four. Besides, even playing within themselves, the French have myriad weapons that can test the Opals, let alone their other opponents. Their backcourt is star-studded, and whilst they may not have any one player that can truly match someone like Liz Cambage in the paint, they have enough pieces to cause anyone trouble on their day.

Player to Watch: Marine Johannes

A teammate of Opals star Bec Allen at New York in the WNBA, Johannes is without question one of the planet’s most entertaining players. A current or former club teammate of a number of the French squad, Johannes can produce a highlight-reel play at the drop of a hat, and the familiarity of this roster should produce the chemistry that sees those plays stick for France. Whether creating off the dribble, finding a teammate with a pass that few players would even consider, or knocking down a clutch three, watching Johannes is a guaranteed recipe for excitement, but not to the detriment of her team’s chances.

Playing alongside current UC Capitals star Olivia Epoupa as France secured EuroBasket silver in 2019, the duo combined for 17.5 points and 8.3 assists per contest, and are set to reprise their combination in Bourges. The Opals will have to be on their toes on defence if they are to slow the French pair, and merely preventing them from scoring won’t be enough. With their ability to find a teammate with an eye-of-the-needle pass, the likes of Sandrine Gruda, who dropped 33 points against Emma Meesseman and Belgium at EuroBasket, will be more than happy to benefit from their ability to find a teammate.

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Already looking towards her second Olympics at just 25, Johannes has grown from a 15-minute a night player in 2016 to a bona fide star of the sport in 2020, and her performances will go a long way to deciding France’s fate not only in this qualifying group, but in Tokyo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tW5CzpGy9Q

Puerto Rico

FIBA World Ranking: 23

Path to Bourges: Finished 2nd in Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament Group A

2016 Olympics: DNQ (Never Qualified)

Should the Opals get past France in their opener, a win over Puerto Rico, the lowest ranked of the four teams in the group, would guarantee an Olympic berth for the Australians. Australia will be widely expected to dominate this matchup, particularly given recent tournament results. The Opals picked up a silver medal at the 2018 World Cup, whilst losses to Japan, Spain, and Belgium by an average of almost 28 points saw Puerto Rico finish bottom of the pile in 16th.

Puerto Rico left it until the absolute last possible minute to earn their spot at the Olympic Qualification Tournament, defeating Cuba 83-81 in a winner-take-all game on the final day of Americas Pre-Qualifying play. Despite being the lowest ranked of the four teams in this group, the Puerto Ricans certainly have the firepower to cause oppositions trouble, only narrowly falling 84-80 to eventual group winners Canada in the Pre-Qualifying tournament. Toppling Brazil appears to be their best chance of a victory that may sneak them into the Olympics, but if they reproduce the same form they showed against Canada, they could yet give the Opals a far sterner test than the two lineups suggest they should. There is also revenge to be sought for Puerto Rico, having been dealt a 95-66 defeat by Brazil on their own home floor in last year’s AmeriCup bronze medal playoff.

American-born stars Jennifer O’Neill and Jazmon Gwathmey shape as the key players for Las 12 Guerreras, with Australian fans no doubt remembering Gwathmey as a member of the UC Capitals in 2016/17. Gwathmey and O’Neill each finished in the top 3 for Puerto Rico in points, rebounds, and assists at the Pre-Qualifying Tournament, but it was locally-based point guard Pamela Rosado who led the side in both scoring and assists with 14.7 points and 4 dimes per contest. Between them, the trio will be tasked with getting the undersized Puerto Rico side over the line, with backcourt play undoubtedly the team’s major strength – even in their 108-58 pre-qualifying win over Dominican Republic, they were outscored 32-26 in the paint.

Player to Watch: Jennifer O’Neill

A former WNBA player with Minnesota, O’Neill is the only player on the Puerto Rico roster currently playing either EuroLeague or EuroCup, turning out for Polish side Artego Bydgoszcz in the latter competition. The New York-born point guard and former Kentucky star will be tasked with steering the team around the court, but will also be relied upon to put the ball in the basket with regularity. However, in scoring 14.1 points per game on 46% shooting in EuroCup this season, that hardly shapes as an issue for the diminutive star, whose fadeaway jumper – perhaps borne out of necessity as she stands at just 5’6 – is a highlight reel waiting to happen.

Rosado may have led the way in pre-qualifying, but there is still a sense that this is O’Neill’s, and to a lesser extent, former UC Capitals guard Jazmon Gwathmey’s, team to lead. By far the best-credentialed players on the roster, it is they who will form the basis of their aforementioned backcourt strength.

Regardless of Puerto Rico’s eventual results, O’Neill shapes as one player for the neutrals to keep an eye on in this tournament, with excitement bound to follow everywhere she goes. Whether this translates into an upset win over any of the other teams remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain – having O’Neill on the court improves Puerto Rico’s chances no end.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_dsqQsXNE0

Brazil

FIBA World Ranking: 15

Path to Bourges: Finished 2nd in Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament Group B

2016 Olympics: 11th (0-5 in Group A)

The Opals will hope to have Olympic qualification well and truly sewn up by the time they face Brazil on the final day of competition, particularly having played bottom-ranked Puerto Rico a day earlier.

After losing to the United States in their opening Americas Pre-Qualifying game, Brazil bounced back to dominate Colombia and Argentina in securing their path to the final qualifying tournament. The Brazilians have a proud history at Olympic level, medalling in 1996 and 2000 before finishing fourth in 2004. However, since that time, results have not matched that proud history, with a 9th placed finish in 2012 bookended by 11th placings in 2008 and 2016.

The Brazilians have performed well at continental level in recent times, securing AmeriCup bronze in 2019 and rolling through Olympic Pre-Qualifying. How much can be garnered from these results is up for debate given the disparity between the top teams in FIBA Americas and the remaining outfits, but they did keep within 16 points against the USA and 8 against Canada in the AmeriCup.

Lyon forward and former WNBA player Clarissa dos Santos remains in doubt with an Achilles injury, but Brazil have plenty of other players that can and will step up in Dos Santos’ absence. Damiris Dantas and veteran Erika De Souza comprise a formidable frontcourt duo that will get after every possible rebound, and probably even some impossible ones too. Meanwhile, their scoring throughout the pre-qualifying tournament was fairly balanced, with five players chipping in between 6 and 8 points per game behind Dantas’ leading tally of 15.7 points.

Player to Watch: Damiris Dantas

A solid player throughout her five seasons with Minnesota and Atlanta in the WNBA, Dantas becomes a whole lot more than that when she dons the Brazilian uniform. The undoubted star of the Brazilian side, Dantas posted almost double the next best scoring numbers for the team at the pre-qualifying tournament, with her 15.7 points per game accounting for almost a quarter of Brazil’s total output, whilst also leading the team in rebounding with 8.3 per game.

Although she stands 6’3 and shapes as one of the star frontcourt players of the group, Dantas can score in a variety of ways, and finished 7th in the WNBA in three-point shooting in 2019, knocking down shots from deep at 39.3%. Moreover, Dantas connected from deep at an astounding 63% in Olympic pre-qualifying. Whilst dos Santos’ potential absence may see Dantas forced to spend more time in the paint, there is no doubting that her shooting ability gives Brazil a weapon with which to utilise in various ways throughout the tournament.

Although more than half of her shot attempts in the WNBA last season came from three-point range, it will matter little how Dantas is utilised for Brazil in this tournament – she is all but guaranteed to have a significant impact. Whether that is enough to secure Brazil an Olympic berth remains to be seen, but Dantas has put this team on her back time and again in the past. Don’t be surprised to see her do it again.

Schedule:

6:30am, Friday February 7 - Australia v France

4:00am, Saturday February 8 - Australia v Puerto Rico

12:00am, Sunday February 9 - Australia v Brazil

All Games live on Fox Sports and Kayo.

Opals Roster

Rebecca ALLEN | Arka Gdynia (Poland) / New York Liberty (WNBA)

Sara BLICAVS | Jayco Southside Flyers

Elizabeth CAMBAGE | Shanxi Xing Rui Flame (WCBA) / Las Vegas Aces (WNBA)

Katie-Rae EBZERY | Perth Lynx

Cayla GEORGE | Deakin Melbourne Boomers

Tessa LAVEY | Bendigo Spirit

Ezi MAGBEGOR | Deakin Melbourne Boomers

Leilani MITCHELL | Jayco Southside Flyers

Lauren NICHOLSON | Adelaide Lightning

Alanna SMITH | Incheon Shinhan Bank S-Birds (WKBA) / Phoenix Mercury (WNBA)

Stephanie TALBOT | Adelaide Lightning / Minnesota Lynx (WNBA)

Marianna TOLO | University of Canberra Capitals