STORRS - Nneka Ogwumike had her share of supporters questioning USA Basketball‚Äôs decision to leave the 2016 WNBA Most Valuable Player off the United States Olympic team that‚Äôs headed to Tokyo later this month.
Among the outspoken were her Los Angeles Sparks coach Derek Fisher, her former Sparks teammate and current Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker, and Portland Trail Blazers‚Äô guard Damian Lillard.
What they didn‚Äôt answer, though, is which of the 12 players on Team USA should be taken off to put Ogwumike on.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs always the question,‚ÄĚ UConn coach and former national team coach Geno Auriemma said on Thursday. ‚ÄúThere are a lot of people that could have made that team. Matter of fact, when they play that All-Star Game in Las Vegas (Wednesday) against the national team, there‚Äôs probably a lot of players on that other team that you would say, ‚ÄėThey‚Äôre good enough to be on the Olympic team.‚Äô And they are.‚ÄĚ
Auriemma is a special advisor to the Olympic team selection committee that includes national team director Carol Callan, Minnesota Lynx assistant coach and former Olympian Katie Smith, WNBA head of league operations Bethany Donaphin, and Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller.
While not directly addressing Ogwumike‚Äôs omission, Auriemma did bring up a 2010 game when a USA team that was headed to the FIBA world championships in the Czech Republic took on a WNBA All-Star team at Mohegan Sun Arena. Team USA led the ‚ÄúStars at the Sun‚ÄĚ contest by 21 at half en route to a 99-72 rout.
‚ÄúThey came in and asked me at halftime, ‚ÄėCool it,‚Äô because it was getting so embarrassing,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúThe gap between those (USA) players and those (WNBA) players was so wide. Well, that gap‚Äôs not there anymore. That gap‚Äôs not that wide anymore. There are more players today that are capable of being Olympians, so it‚Äôs much harder to pick the team now than it‚Äôs ever been.‚ÄĚ
The only player from the WNBA All-Star team in 2010 to later represent the United States in the Olympics was two-time gold medalist Lindsay Whalen.
Five former UConn All-Americans - Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, and Napheesa Collier - were named last week to the USA team that will go for a seventh straight Olympic gold medal in Japan. It‚Äôs the third consecutive Games that at least five ex-Huskies will represent the red, white, and blue.
Team USA is coached by South Carolina‚Äôs Dawn Staley. The coach, while having input, doesn‚Äôt pick the 12-player roster.
Ogwumike has not played in a month since suffering a knee injury, though she is expected to be healthy by the time the Games start on July 26.
‚ÄúIf it was a committee of one, which it isn‚Äôt, then I would answer every question and say, ‚ÄėAll right, ask me why I did this and I‚Äôll tell you why,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúUnfortunately, or fortunately, the committee is made up of five people: former players, WNBA front office people, USA Basketball people, six counting Dawn as the head coach, who is on the calls.
‚ÄúWhat I find humorous was the two times I was the coach it was, ‚ÄėUConn politics, UConn bias, because of Geno Auriemma.‚Äô And I was the coach. And Carol made a point to say, ‚ÄėNo, it‚Äôs the committee that picked the team. Now, I‚Äôm not the coach and ‚ÄėGeno Auriemma is still the (jerk).‚Äô And I‚Äôm on the committee. So I think there‚Äôs a common thread there. Wherever I am, that‚Äôs whose fault it is if you don‚Äôt like whoever‚Äôs on the team.‚ÄĚ
Bird and Taurasi will be seeking a record fifth gold medal while Charles will be going for her third and Stewart her second.
Collier, a two-time All-American and American Athletic Conference Player of the Year in her time with the Huskies, was the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year and finished fifth in MVP voting a season ago while being named to the all-league second team.
‚ÄúI think what a lot of people don‚Äôt realize is once you start putting a team together,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said, ‚Äúand you have certain picks and if you say ‚Äėone, two, three, four, five, hey those six, they‚Äôre good to go.‚Äô Well, that‚Äôs going to affect the next six picks. So you can‚Äôt just put them all out there one individually and individually and pick them out of the air. Once you put these four people on the team, now you better complement them with the right other people.‚ÄĚ
Team Canada will have former UConn guard Kia Nurse and current sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards on its roster. Ex-Huskies Bria Hartley and Gabby Williams are candidates for France‚Äôs Olympic team.
Auriemma joked that he placed a call to former UConn star Svetlana Abrosimova.
‚ÄúI called Sveta to see if I could pick the Russian team,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said with a smile. ‚ÄúShe‚Äôs like the Carol Callan of the Russian team. But I can‚Äôt pronounce some of their names, so I‚Äôm not allowed to say, ‚ÄėYeah, number 12 should be on it.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Much of the spotlight will be on Bird and Taurasi. They share the basketball mark of four gold medals with Teresa Edwards and Tamika Catchings. Edwards holds the record of five medals as she won bronze in 1992.
‚ÄúI hope they win. I hope they play great,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúAnd knowing the two of them, they‚Äôre going to be a big reason why they win because if they weren‚Äôt, they wouldn‚Äôt even be on the team. That‚Äôs the way they‚Äôve always approached things.
‚ÄúSo the fact that at their age they can still be that impactful, it says a lot about their love for the game, their passion for the game, their sacrifice for the game, and the discipline that they‚Äôve had to live their lives a certain way that allows them to be this productive at that age. That‚Äôs a great lesson to a lot of kids.‚ÄĚ