- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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During the women's basketball tournament at the London Olympics, the Red, White and Blue will have a very heavy dose of the "white and blue."
Half of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team will be former Connecticut players after the 12th and final member, 6-foot-3 post player Asjha Jones, was added Monday. And the head honcho of the Huskies, Geno Auriemma, will be coaching them.
Jones, who plays in the WNBA for the Connecticut Sun, joins fellow UConn graduates Sue Bird (Seattle), Diana Taurasi (Phoenix), Swin Cash (Chicago), Maya Moore (Minnesota) and Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun), as the Americans vie for a fifth consecutive gold medal and seventh overall.
Now, before anyone starts grumbling about this being a case of the college-connection version of nepotism, remember that Auriemma doesn't pick the team. He has input, but a committee makes the decisions about who fills the Team USA roster. National team director Carol Callan heads up the committee; the other members are five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, San Antonio Silver Stars coach/GM Dan Hughes, Indiana Fever GM/CEO Kelly Krauskopf and WNBA executive Renee Brown.
"I kind of put the Olympics out of my head because I didn't think I was going to be on the team," Jones said in a statement released by USA Basketball on Monday. "First, I was surprised that Carol was even calling me. Then when I answered and she told me the news, I was very surprised, very shocked. I was really, really honored to be picked up."
It seemed likely this team would be Huskies-heavy no matter who the coach was. The six Huskies combined to win six NCAA championships in their college careers (2000-04, 2009-10) and have been part of seven WNBA title teams in Seattle (2004 and 2010), Detroit (2003, 2006), Phoenix (2007, 2009) and Minnesota (2011). Two -- Bird and Taurasi -- will play in their third Olympics, while it will be the second for Cash. All six Huskies were on the gold-winning 2010 World Championship team; Moore was still in college then.
At last month's announcement in Denver, where 11 of the members of the team were unveiled, Auriemma acknowledged he wouldn't have minded if USA Basketball had given him the exact same squad for London that he had in the Czech Republic in 2010. Now with Jones on the Olympic team, he has 10 of 12. (The two players from that worlds team who are not headed to the Olympics are San Antonio center Jayne Appel and Phoenix post player Candice Dupree.)
Los Angeles' Candace Parker (Tennessee) and Minnesota's Seimone Augustus (LSU), who were 2008 Olympians, are on the London team. They didn't play in the 2010 worlds because of injury issues. Parker missed most of the WNBA season that year with a shoulder injury; Augustus played in 25 games in 2010, but she wasn't at 100 percent in her return after being sidelined for much of the 2009 WNBA slate with a torn ACL. Augustus was at full force last season in leading Minnesota to its first WNBA title. Parker played only 17 games last year after a meniscus tear in her right knee. Having them back healthy for Team USA is a big boost.
So, why was the final spot announced Monday? USA Basketball clearly seemed to be holding out for Baylor senior-to-be Brittney Griner, who led her team to the NCAA championship in Denver. At the Olympic-team unveiling there, USA Basketball indicated it might not name its 12th player until May or June. But Griner announced last week she was foregoing potential participation in the Olympic Games this summer because of a family illness and summer-school commitments. Griner's decision no doubt struck some as odd, but once she was out of the mix, it was not as if the Americans had any lack of choices.
New York's Cappie Pondexter, who played in the 2008 Olympics, would have been a good pick at guard. Did the fact she skipped the 2010 World Championship have anything to do with why she wasn't selected? USA Basketball says no. Still, her play overseas this season (her team won the Turkish league title) combined with her past WNBA success made her an enticing choice.
Instead, the committee went with the physical strength and well-rounded interior ability of Jones, who like Bird and Cash graduated from UConn in 2002 after a perfect season with the Huskies. Auriemma's trust level with Jones was best displayed in the way he described her last year during the WNBA season, in which she started every game for the Sun and averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.
"She's like that easy chair you have in your den," Auriemma said at the time. "It's always there, and you can count on it. She did not miss one practice in four years at Connecticut. There were never any surprises, no drama. It was a tremendous comfort for everybody else."
A week ago, accompanying senior Tiffany Hayes to the WNBA draft in Bristol, Conn., Auriemma talked about the experience of coaching so many of his former players in the Team USA setting.
"I think Tina and Maya still look at me as 'Coach Auriemma' because it's so recent," he said of Charles and Moore, who graduated in 2010 and 2011, respectively. "The other three, when we were at the World Championship, I think they still respect who I am and what I've done. But I think there's a different level that we're on right now, [with] where they are as people and players. And I respect that.
"So I don't treat them like I did when they were at UConn. I probably ask them more questions than I tell them things."
Now Jones is added to that latter group of experienced former Huskies whom Auriemma really enjoys being around in their fully grown-up years.
"I laugh a lot and smile a lot; it's fun going to practice," he said. "As good as they were in college, they're unbelievable as adults. I thought when they left UConn, I would never get a chance to be around them again in this environment. It's been really amazing for me."