Road to Rio: Tough selection looms for Opals front court
The Australian Opals have trimmed down their list to 17 ahead of their tour of Japan in the coming weeks. The Opals will take part in a 3-game series in Japan as part of their preparations for the 2016 Olympics, and are expecting their opponents to be at full strength.
Touring Japan will provide the Opals the opportunity to match up against Japan's squad and provide insights into their game plan given that both sides are drawn in same pool in Rio. Whilst it gives them great opportunity to get a further look at the Olympic competition, it also enables coach Brendan Joyce to see who is the right 12 he should take to the Olympics.
"The tour will add to our preparation for Brazil but also give the coaching staff a chance to trial the players and give the players themselves some international experience," Joyce told the Daily Telegraph.
As far as selection goes, the remaining 17 Opals will eventually be cut to 12 for the Olympics.
Joyce has made it known he is trying to build a fast and dynamic Opals team, similar to what we saw at the 2014 World Championships. The head coach has implied there is a very high chance the Opals Olympic team will be largely similar to the Opals side who brought home a bronze medal from the World Championships two years ago.
"The good thing is that I believe a large chunk of players have proven themselves at the world championships and a large chunk of those players will go to the Olympics because we need stability," Joyce explained to FairFax Media.
This does make things difficult for arguably the toughest positions up for selection - the Opals front court. The options for centers and power forwards are deep, and they all bring something to the table that the other doesn't. The likes of Suzy Batkovic, Abby Bishop, Sara Blicavs, Nat Burton, Liz Cambage, Cayla George, Laura Hodges and Marianna Tolo are all vying for a center or power forward position.
The players vying for a spot in the Opals front court
So what do the contending big's bring to the table? Let's take a look.
Batkovic has earned her right to see a fourth Olympic Games, and with her recent WNBL MVP award and phenomenal form, she deserves it. Her wealth of experience and talent has allowed her to be placed into the category of one of Australia's greatest players of all time. She is also a fantastic team person, and will inspire the rest of the girls on and off the court. Batkovic always manages to get big scores on the board, and her experience with the Australian team will be a valuable asset.
With a lot of experience internationally for the Opals, in Europe and the WNBA, Bishop knows the competition well. She always finds a way to contribute largely to the score board with her dynamic ability inside and outside the paint. If she can make it back from her current injury, Bishop will be one of the Opals most important assets.
Blicavs is a real challenge for defenders as her strongest asset is her versatility. She is fast, strong and can play more of a guard role if needed as well, making her a very adaptable player. She can shoot the lights out and stretch the defense, and she can also be trusted with some tough defensive assignments which will be important in Rio. Importantly, she perfectly represents the style of play that Joyce wants to implement.
Burton's agility in getting up and down the floor makes her fit in with the Opals fast style of play. She's trusted with some big defensive assignments, and while she may be a somewhat newer name to the Opals, she might just be a pleasantly surprising element.
It's safe to say Cambage will be a definite, and rightly so. When she is on, the team is on, and we are sure the first female to dunk at an Olympic Games can give us some amazing highlights again. Arguably one of the Opals most important players, Cambage has shown how vital her presence is on the court. While her height makes her a perfect basketballer, she puts in the hard yards on the court to make her much more than that. She is the kind of player who, when firing, fires up the rest of the team.
With a vast amount of European and WNBA experience, George has a lot of knowledge about the international game and players. She can take some tough defensive assignments as this being a huge improvement to her game. She's been near, or at the top of the rebounding count in WNBL for the past few years as she has steps up in crashing the boards. The girl can also hit a 3 any day of the week, allowing her to really stretch the defense.
Hodges has always performed well for Australia on the big stage, and her level of experience brings a sense of stability to the team. She is an extremely smart player, and has a lot of durability in continuous running of the floor. Her game also stretches the defense and she has a dynamic ability to score. She most recently won the Eurocup title with her French side Bourges and is a proven winner.
Tolo stepped up at the World Championships when Cambage was ruled out with injury and became Australia's go-to tall. She proved herself in these games and just how important she is to the Opals. If she can make it back from her knee injury, she will be crucial to the Opals defensive play. Her physicality on both ends of the court is also proven to be extremely valuable to the Opals.
Each of these big's would be worthy of a spot in the Opals, and they will be playing arguably the most important position on the court. With some aiming to get back from injuries and some having proved their fitness already, it will be one of the toughest decisions for Joyce and his coaching staff to decide who are fittest and most capable bigs to help bring home a gold medal.
Opals team for Japan tour:
Rebecca ALLEN Suzy BATKOVIC Sara BLICAVS Nat BURTON Elizabeth CAMBAGE Katie-Rae EBZERY Cayla GEORGE Rachel JARRY Tessa LAVEY Tess MADGEN Leilani MITCHELL Steph TALBOT
Injured or Unavailable Opals for Japan tour:
Abby BISHOP (Injured) Erin PHILLIPS (WNBA) Laura HODGES (France) Penny TAYLOR (WNBA) Marianna TOLO (Injured)