USA women's national team to play colleges

LAS VEGAS -- Four-time Olympic gold medalists Diana Taurasi of Phoenix and Sue Bird of Seattle are among eight WNBA players from the 2019-20 USA Basketball national team pool who will compete in exhibition games against some of the top women's college programs this fall and winter.

It's part of an expanded national team training program to better prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. The college tour will be similar to those done before the 1996, 2000 and 2008 Olympics. That schedule will be announced at a later date. The NCAA will grant waivers to allow member institutions to play exhibitions against the U.S. team.

The eight players will commit to being available for five training segments that will take place from November 2019 to April 2020. Joining Taurasi and Bird will be Minnesota's Sylvia Fowles, Washington's Elena Delle Donne, Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson, and Dallas' Skylar Diggins-Smith. Other players will be added to the roster as their schedules allow.

"This program gives us an opportunity to keep a core group of players together and to build chemistry and cohesion while some of our other players who are in the pool are overseas playing," USA coach Dawn Staley said. "I'm super excited about it. I hope it develops into something that's long-lasting, because it's needed."

The U.S. women's basketball team has won six consecutive gold medals at the Olympics dating back to 1996. But finding time to train has long been a challenge. Before the 1996 Atlanta Games, Tara VanDerveer took a year off from Stanford to coach a U.S. team -- which Staley was a player on -- that traveled throughout the winter and spring of 1995-96 to prepare.

But with the WNBA's launch as a summer league in 1997, and so many WNBA players also playing overseas in the winter months, opportunities for the U.S. team members to get together dwindled. It hasn't stopped their success, but there was still concern about a lack of preparation for the 2020 Olympics.

Bird has not played yet this WNBA season after undergoing knee surgery, and Taurasi has been limited to one game after back surgery. In 2020, Taurasi turns 38 in June and Bird 40 in October. This new training system was an idea that the two of them pushed to USA Basketball, both to help for 2020 and as a building block for the future.

"This was something that, at this point in our careers, we know how important it is to have a good, last hurrah," Taurasi said. "We brainstormed with a couple other players and put together a plan."

Bird added, "It's the right amount of training so we can gear up and get ready for the Olympics, and also it gives us the right amount of exposure where we can really create some momentum heading into the Olympics."

As part of Taurasi and Bird's plan, each player would be paid $2,000 a day at each of the training camps and games leading up to the Olympics, about $100,000 total, with the chance to also earn bonuses.

New WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert talked about the program before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game. She and USA Basketball officials see this as not just for preparation, but also about raising the profile of the national team, the WNBA, and girls' and women's basketball in general.

The United States also will take advantage of the new Olympic qualifying process set up by FIBA, the world governing body of basketball. This allows for two windows of qualifying competition, during which all overseas leagues will be shut down: Nov. 10-18, 2019, and Feb. 2-10, 2020.

By virtue of winning last year's World Cup, the Americans already have qualified for the 2020 Olympics, as has host nation Japan. Still, the United States will use the qualifying tournaments as preparation for the Olympics.

The United States also will compete in the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup from Sept. 22 to 29 in Puerto Rico. The pool of athletes available for that will comprise of those whose teams are no longer involved in the WNBA playoffs.