USA Basketball Preps for an Uncertain Year

Olympics, FIBA are ready to go -- at least for now

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Despite COVID, the wheels of international basketball keep turning, and USA Basketball is doing all it can to be ready for a complicated, uncertain year of competition. 

“With COVID, we’re always flexible,” said Carol Callan, Women’s National Team Director, but still, plans have to be made – beginning with the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics. 

“At this point, the IOC has said the Tokyo Games will go forward,” said Callan, which means the USA Basketball Selection Committee will still choose its 12-player roster for the summer event – but without some of the camps it usually holds to help determine who makes the team. 

Similar complexities will affect tryouts for the 2022 World Championship team, plus the youth teams that play in FIBA events. Here’s a quick look at how each team is expected to handle 2021. 

National Team 

“It’s a long-running show,” said Callan of the selection process, and the group that will head to Tokyo in late July will be chosen on the basis of not only what happens in 2021 but career-long achievements. “Everything plays into the selection,” said Callan. “We will have camps but not everyone can come,” so the committee will not limit itself to just picking from those who are able to attend. 

In short, that means players like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are likely to find a home on the roster even if neither attends a camp or participates fully if they are there. 

Regardless of who is on the team, the U.S. will come into the Games as prohibitive favorites to win another gold medal. 

The same can’t be said of the three-on-three event, which is new to the Olympics this year. The selection process for the 3x3 teams was also disrupted by COVID, but previous plans called for the team to come from a separate pool of players than for the five-on-five group. 

The fast-paced 3x3 format, with its emphasis on pick-and-roll play and three-point shooting, has made it harder for America to routinely win tournaments. In addition, the May qualifying event will conflict with the WNBA season so college players will likely be called on to earn a spot in Tokyo by finishing in the top three in the qualifying tournament.

The Americup

You can be forgiven if “Americup” doesn’t ring a bell – it’s the new name for the FIBA Americas Zone Competition, which is the beginning of the qualification process for the FIBA World Cup. The World Cup, like the Olympics, is held every four years, and the next one is scheduled for 2022. 

Usually, that allows for nearly two years of qualifying play, but to stay on track, national teams will actually begin competition in June, before this year’s Olympics. 

This creates a problem for the United States, as almost all of its pool of National Team players will be involved in the WNBA at that time, meaning it’s likely a group of college players will head to South America.

“If we don’t win the Olympics, we have to qualify for the World Cup,” said Callan, “so we’ve got some work to do.” 

There will be 10 national teams in the Americup – not surprisingly drawn from North, South and Central America – and only four will move on to the next stage of qualifying. Even with college players, the United States would be the favorite and would have to fail spectacularly not to be in the top four, but as the World Cup is second only to the Olympics in prestige for international women’s basketball, USA Basketball wants to take no chances. 

“We might wind up taking a professional who doesn’t make a WNBA roster,” said Callan, instead of all collegians, but the issue of who will coach the team is also in play. Dawn Staley’s run as National Team coach will end after the Olympics, so a new coach will be in charge for the 2022 World Cup, a position that has yet to be filled. If a WNBA coach is chosen, he or she would not be available for the Americup, meaning a college coach would likely have to step in. 

If the Americans finish in the top four or win the Olympic gold, they will move on to the next round of qualifying in February 2022, with the World Cup itself set for fall 2022 in Australia. 

Under 19

FIBA’s youth competitions operate in a staggered two-year cycle: The first year is a qualifying round with Under 16 and Under 18 tournaments in America, followed by World Cups for Under 17 and Under 19 the next year. The Under 17 World Cup for 2020 was canceled, and the Under 18 qualifying was truncated, with the United States and Canada awarded automatic berths for the U-19 championship this year. 

The Under 19 World Cup will be in Hungary in August, and plans call for a tryout camp in Colorado Springs in May. This camp will be by invitation only and will involve 30 or so of America’s top young players vying for a spot on the 12-person roster. 

Under 16

The Under 16 FIBA Americas tournament will be in South America in June, and USA Basketball is hoping to hold its traditional open tryouts over Memorial Day weekend in Colorado Springs.

The open tryouts attract more than 100 young players, of whom around 35 are invited by the selection committee. Naturally, the invited players are favored to win a spot on the final roster, but there are always surprises. Perhaps the most telling story belongs to Sabrina Ionescu, who paid her way to Colorado Springs and was a complete unknown before playing her way onto the team, and into the spotlight, during the open tryouts. 

“We’re going to invite athletes in mid-March,” said Callan, but of course it’s unclear what the situation will be then, or in May, but hopes are high that vaccinations and a flattening of the infection curve will allow for all the camps to proceed. 

Pan-American Games

The next Pan-American Games aren’t scheduled until 2023, but there is some talk of a 3x3 tournament this year, perhaps in September. And with 3x3 being an Olympic event this year, there will be more interest in holding that kind of event.

But, as Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer points out, everybody’s middle name this year needs to be “flexible” -- and though hopes are high that all will go as planned, certainty about anything right now is definitely hard to come by.

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