There are two main storylines going into the "knockout" round of women's basketball competition. One everybody expected: Team USA is 5-0 and has appeared to tune up quite well for its run at a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
The second is not a total shock … but by the same token, it wasn't expected, either: the other squad that is 5-0 previously hasn't come close to an Olympic gold. Team France had its best Olympic finish in 2000, when it was fifth.
France's best finish in the world championship -- which goes back a couple of decades before Olympic competition began for women's hoops -- was third. But that was in an era for the sport that is about as different from today as the rotary phone is from the smart phone: 1953.
France took the bronze in the first world championship nearly 60 years ago. The best French finish in more modern times was fifth in 2006. France was sixth in the most recent world championship, in 2010.
USA coach Geno Auriemma, in scouting the field before the Olympics, noticed France's strengths. The thought was the French has a chance to medal. Through pool play, France has shown so far that it is living up to that potential. The French players that WNBA-watchers are likely most familiar with are Sandrine Gruda and Edwige Lawson-Wade. Celine Dumerc is leading the way for France, averaging 14.4 points.
But it's not as though France was as dominant during pool play as Group A leader United States was. What separates France from the second-place team in Group B, Australia, is a 74-70 overtime victory over the Aussies last Monday. The French subsequently beat Canada by just four points and had to go to overtime to beat Great Britain -- which later finished pool play winless -- by three.
Did France play a bit over its head against Australia? Did the Aussies just have a less-than-stellar outing at the wrong time? Whatever the case, the end result is that Australia will not be facing the United States in the gold-medal game, which is what happened in the past three Olympics. If that USA-Australia matchup happens, it will be in the semifinals. Australia faces China next.
The Aussies had two big individual moments in the first week of competition. The first was when Lauren Jackson passed Team USA's Lisa Leslie, now retired, as the all-time leading scorer in women's Olympic hoops competition. (It's great for LJ; congrats are well-deserved. But odds are she knows full well that Leslie is thinking, "Have I shown you my four Olympic gold medals?")
And the other individual Aussie awesomeness was that Liz Cambage dunked. (By the way, they sure hope to see some dunks sometime in Tulsa, Liz. It has been a long, blistering summer in Oklahoma.)
What we've learned from all our dealings with the Aussies in the WNBA, though, is that "team" absolutely rules for them. What they do individually is … well, nice. But it's nothing compared to their devotion to what they hope to accomplish together. Jackson and Cambage -- who have combined to average about 29 points and 12 rebounds thus far in this tournament -- are trying to do in the Olympics what Australia was able to accomplish in the 2006 world championship: win gold.
What the Aussies didn't have to do back then, though, was beat the United States in the medal round: Russia upset the Americans in the semifinals at worlds six years ago. So far in this Olympic tournament, the Russians haven't seemed to perform as well as they're probably capable. At 3-2, they lost their last two games in pool play. Can the Russians turn it around in the quarterfinals against Turkey, a nation that clearly is on the rise in women's basketball?
Meanwhile, France next has to prove its medal run is the real deal against the Czech Republic. The Czech team is less experienced now than the group that took silver in the 2010 world championship, but this could be tricky for the French. France is the better team, but this is far from a lock.
However, it's hard to see the other quarterfinal -- Team USA vs. Team Canada -- as anything other than a foregone conclusion. If we were talking soccer or Winter Olympics and ice hockey, it would be a different story. But in women's hoops, since having to settle for bronze in the Barcelona Games two decades ago, the Americans have just that 2006 world championship semifinal loss as a blemish.
And no matter how many times you state it, it can't be stressed enough: What makes the United States so incredibly difficult to beat is depth of talent. So far in these Olympics, we've seen foes be able to play with the American team for stretches. But over the course of an entire game, going against the U.S. squad continues to be like playing the old Asteroids game: Eventually, there are just too many space rocks coming at you too fast.
Angel McCoughtry hasn't started any games in London, but she's Team USA's leading scorer and rebounder. And if you're a fan of the Americans, she has probably been your favorite U.S. player, too. Even on a team known for admirable hustle, she's standing out. And that takes some doing.
McCoughtry is clearly one of the best players in the world at this stage in her career. But what she has shown indisputably in this tournament is a Sheryl Swoopes-like ability to have a major impact on games with her opportunistic defense.
And that, ultimately, has been as dominant a factor for the Americans as anything. Sylvia Fowles -- nearly a brick wall inside when she's at her best -- has been limited because of a tendon injury. And yet, the Americans' capacity to ratchet up the defense has still been formidable.
Even an opponent executing very well for much of the game can be worn down by Team USA's defense. That -- as much as the Americans' potential to be an offensive highlight show (which they've displayed at some times but not others) -- is what sends the Team USA into the quarterfinals as such a strong favorite.