The Australian Opals have an Olympics dress rehearsal with their 15 day European tour and still hope to have a pre-Rio showdown with Team USA before the Games.
Opals coach Brendan Joyce has scheduled eight games in 15 days on the European tour with his side to play nations from all continents in a schedule which is similar to the eight games the Opals will play between their opening game in Rio on August 7 and the gold medal game on August 21.
The Opals also expect to play three games in the USA in the final 10 days before the Games and they hope to secure a clash with Team USA on the US east coast.
The Opals have 17 players in the race for the final 12 roster spots with Penny Taylor, Erin Phillips and Abby Bishop playing in the WNBA and Sara Blicavs to stay in Australia to continue recovering from an ankle injury.
Joyce will take the remaining 13 players to Europe with centre Marianna Tolo an unexpected addition thanks to her rehabilitation from a knee reconstruction being ahead of schedule, while Tess Madgen's ankle injury won't stop her touring but could limit her game time. Veteran forward Laura Hodges will also join the side after finishing her club season with Bourges in France.
With the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament, which decides the last five Olympic places, in Nantes from June 13-19, potential Olympic qualifiers France, Canada, China, Argentina, Spain and Cameroon will all play the Opals as part of their preparation.
The Opals have also scheduled games against Italy and Belgium as part of the tour.
Joyce said with under 80 days until the Olympics, the tour would give his players a taste of the grind they could expect in Rio. "It's a chance to assimilate to how the Olympics will play out and we are still a fair way away from it that so the team has plenty of time to recover," Joyce said.
"We have tried to structure it like an Olympics, although some of the games won't be as tough as what we'd face in Rio.
"France, Canada and China haven't qualified for the Olympics yet but I'd expect them to qualify, although Argentina could cause a shock."
The Opals are excited to have Tolo back after she played a starring role in the FIBA women's world championships in 2014 then suffered a serious knee injury while playing in the WNBA.
"We were told she was going to be 100 per cent for our last two camps but no chance to play on this tour," Tolo said. "But we've been given some advice that we can play her in some games – she is way ahead in her recovery – she's one of our best and we saw how outstanding she was at the worlds."
The Opals just completed a three-game tour of Japan and won all three games by comfortable margins with Liz Cambage dominant and the team's pressure defence showing it was coming along well.
"Liz played really well and having worked with Liz for the full year in 2014 before she was injured I know there is more to come from her and that's exciting," Joyce said.
"I'm happy with how she performed and I'm looking forward to her going another step further to get back to the way she was playing before the worlds in 2014. "She dominated against Japan because of her height advantage and I know she's looking forward to facing those European and American players who are closer to her size."
Opals guard Tessa Lavey said the Japan tour was a great way for the Opals to get back on court together but the European tour would test everyone's Olympic readiness. "It will be an opportunity to see what the Olympics will feel like and an opportunity to learn how hard we will have to go," Lavey said. "It's a really smart idea and I'm most excited to be playing that many games away on tour. Usually it's more training and less games."
Joyce has to name the Opals' 12-player Olympic roster by July 12 and the full side won't truly come together until about 10 days before the games when WNBA players such as Taylor and Phillips join the group.
"I watch their games but try to back off them during their season," Joyce said. "I still get emails from Penny and Erin asking for my thoughts or requesting footage from our Japan tour."
Lavey, who would make her Olympic debut if selected for Rio, said the whole side wanted to make the most of their European tour before considering the fast-approaching Olympics.
"It's going to be a huge tour for us," Lavey said. "Every country plays a different style and we will come across all of that at the Olympics."
By Roy Ward
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald