STORRS (FIBA World Championship for Women) - The last decade in women’s basketball has revealed a gulf in class between the ‘Big Three’ of the United States, Australia and Russia, and the rest of the world.
It has also shown that the Americans are a step ahead of the Aussies and Russians. The aim of new USA coach Geno Auriemma is to make sure that doesn’t change.
Other than their slip at the 2006 FIBA World Championship for Women in Brazil when the United States lost to Russia in the Semi-Finals and settled for bronze, the USA have captured four straight Olympic gold medals and two world titles from a possible three.
Auriemma knows that reaching the top of the podium at next year’s FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic, and at the 2012 Olympics, won’t be easy.
“Even though we've been unbelievably successful, and that's a testament to the players that we've had,” Auriemma said, “(basketball) is probably the one sport that the rest of the world puts a lot of emphasis on in women's sports, team sports anyway.
“I've got to believe that over the next three years, that there is going to be a huge push by those (Australian and Russian) players.
“There are a lot of players getting to that age, now, where this is going to be their last one.
“Australia doesn't have many more chances to beat us, the Russians don't have many more chances to beat us, so this is going to be a really important three years for them. I don't think it's going to be easy (for the USA).”
Auriemma, the long-time boss of the NCAA powerhouse UConn Huskies women’s team, has signed a USA Basketball contract through the London Olympics.
He’ll get a lot of help from two of his former college players who are key members of the national team.
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were NCAA Championship winners under Auriemma and both are leaders of the USA.
Each won gold medals at the Athens and Beijing Olympics.
However, each also suffered the disappointment of a bronze-medal finish in Brazil.
Auriemma says they form “the best backcourt in the world”.
“The fact that I know both of them, I watched them grow up, I know their strengths and weaknesses - I think that will be a help for me,” he said.
“Hopefully they'll help me coach the other guys who don't know me. I'm going to be counting on them a lot.”
Bird and Taurasi are good friends and teammates with Australia international Lauren Jackson and a handful of Russia internationals at Spartak Moscow Region.
They also frequently compete against other leading international players in Russia’s Superleague Women and the EuroLeague Women.
Both contacted Auriemma after learning of his appointment.
"I heard from both Diane and Sue,” he said.
“I really think they are genuinely excited for the opportunity. Obviously, this might be their last one (Olympics). I don't know, but Sue's going to be 31 or 32 by the time the (London) Games come around and I don't know that she'll play much longer than that. D, the same thing.
“I know that it's real important to them. USA Basketball has always been real important on the women's side and I know for those two, it's really important to them. They've told me they want to go out the right way and do it the right way.
“I think this will be their first opportunity to really be the core of the team because up until now, the core has been made up of the older players, whether it’s Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson and Katie Smith and that whole group that has been unbelievable through all the Olympics.
“This now becomes a different group. I think those two are really excited about the opportunity. They are happy for me. They know how much I wanted to do this.
“I'm anxious to see how all that time in Russia has changed them. My guess is Sue is probably still the same. (Smiling) The other one I can't vouch for.”
This is not the first time Auriemma has worked in USA Basketball.
He was an assistant coach for the 2000 Olympic Team that captured gold in Sydney.
In 2001, he also served as head coach of the U19 World Championship team that won bronze in Brno, the Czech Republic.
Becoming the head coach of the senior team is not something that Auriemma expected because until recently, the coach had to have WNBA experience.
His experience at all age levels has given him a lot of insight.
"I have this theory that when the US competes internationally in the 16-, 17-, 18-year-old stages, we're not, in most cases, as advanced as other countries,” he said.
“Our kids play other sports. Our kids are more involved in other things. Those kids become professional basketball players sometimes when they are 16, 17, 18 years old.
“When the kids go to college and they come out of college, that's when it starts to change.”
The Italian-born Auriemma has won six NCAA titles and had three unbeaten teams in his 24 years at the helm of the Huskies.
Finding success as the USA coach in the Czech Republic and at the Olympics would be something he’d treasure.
“I'm fortunate that I've been given this opportunity,” he said.
"I can't imagine that there is anything I would ever do in my coaching career that would be as meaningful as winning the gold medal, on a lot of levels.”