As the calendar ticked over to 2020, the countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics becomes even more real.
For Australian basketball, the level of anticipation and excitement is arguably reaching levels never seen before down under.
Sure, the Opals have been perennial medal contenders on the world stage, but now the Boomers have joined them as a genuine threat to win perhaps a first ever medal for the men's program at any major event. With 3x3 basketball also set to debut in Tokyo, the Australian women are also a realistic chance to win a medal if they can manage to qualify.
Opals aiming to return to medal dais
While the Opals won silver at the 2018 FIBA World Cup, Sandy Brondello's world number two ranked squad has not had it easy. They finished just third at the 2019 FIBA Asia Cup behind China and Japan, and will be looking to restore their standing by making a medal run in Tokyo.
Yet before any Tokyo campaign can be planned, the Opals must safely navigate their way through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Bourges, France. Drawn as a number one seed, the Opals will duel with world number 5 ranked France, South American powerhouse Brazil (15) and Puerto Rico (23)in the event to take place from February 6-9, 2020. Australia needs to finish in the top 3 in their group to earn a ticket to Japan, and they should be able to safely do so.
After earning five consecutive medals at the Olympics from 1996 onward, the Opals missed the medal rounds at 2016 Rio. It will be an aberration that Brondello and the squad will be looking to correct in Tokyo. However to do so, they will need to utilise the undeniable talent of Liz Cambage, while looking for a solution to prevent opposition teams taking exploiting of their lack of foot speed in the back court - something both China and Japan both took full advantage off in the Asia Cup. Do this, and the Opals will be able to live up to their number 2 world ranking and look to push for a return to the medal dais come early August.
Boomers regroup for that elusive medal
Fourth in Rio four years ago and then again in China at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Both events saw the Boomers go closer than ever before to earning that first ever elusive medal in a major event.
In between Rio and China, the Boomers clinched a debut FIBA Asia Cup, and with their sustained success across the past four years, elevated to an unprecedented world ranking of number three in the world in the latest rankings released after China.
To win at a major event, it requires sustained success across the entire tournament. Outgoing Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis led the Boomers to the cusp of a first ever medal, and now the baton will pass to current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown. A former Boomers head coach himself, Brown is tasked with leading the core group of Aussie NBA stars that includes Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova to the promised land.
It is thought that with Brown at the helm, he may be able to lure Ben Simmons into the fold, and with Ryan Broekhoff and Dante Exum both in good form in the NBA, it paves the way for the Boomers to field perhaps the best ever squad of 12. With Andrew Bogut likely suiting up for his last ever national team campaign, the Boomers are once again on the cusp of something special.
In Rio, the Boomers captured the imagination of the Australian public in their thrilling run to their bronze medal campaign, and were the highest rating sport on the 7 Network's Olympic coverage. Yet despite playing some of the most attractive team-oriented basketball at the event, they would miss out on a medal in controversial circumstances.
For Australia's current NBA stars to etch their names into sporting folklore and be able to call themselves the best Boomers team ever, they must be able to surpass the fourth placed Boomers teams of Atlanta and Sydney. Those were teams built around the likes of legendary players including Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal, Mark Bradtke, Andrew Vlahov and Sam Mackinnon. Right now, the current Boomers are on a par with their predecessors, but a a medal in August would help alter that and further boost the sport back home in Australia.
Aussie women could win inaugural 3x3 gold
The newest sport at the Olympics in 3x3 basketball, and the Australian women, should they qualify, are a realistic chance to make a charge towards the podium in Tokyo.
As 2019 3x3 Asia Cup champions, the Aussie women have enjoyed great success on the world stage in the shorter form of the game, dating back to when they won silver at the 2012 3x3 World Cup in Athens, Greece.
Last year's 3x3 Asia Cup MVP, Bec Cole has been the mainstay of the Australian women's team and its current highest ranked player (44th in the world). The Southside Flyers WNBL star is expected to lead the Australian's quest to qualify for Tokyo.
Cole, Alice Kunek, Keely Froling and Maddie Garrick almost led Australia to a medal at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup in June 2019. A heartbreaking overtime loss to China in the semi final saw them take on France in the playoff for bronze before finishing fourth.
Australia's pathway to qualifying for Tokyo involves a grueling tournament as one of 20 teams vying for just 3 tickets to the Olympics. The Aussie women will enter the Olympic Qualification Tournament as the lowest ranked Federation (28th), and they have been pooled with Asian rivals Japan (11th), Ukraine (14th) and Turkmenistan (22nd) to compete in India for a possible Olympic berth this March.
The Aussie women have always belied their world ranking status on the 3x3 world stage, so it would be no surprise if they qualifying for the inaugural Olympic event.