A trip to Las Vegas doesn't get much more eventful than what the Australian Opals experienced.
In the space of a few days, the Opals lost their best player, then beat the best team in the world. It's a sign of the volatility that comes with any Olympics, but also reason to be hopeful.
Liz Cambage left the national team, citing mental health reasons - though, prior to that, she was involved in an altercation in a behind-closed-doors scrimmage against Nigeria, leading her teammates to effectively vote to have her removed - leaving Australia without a top-3 player in the world; a centre that's a big part of their identity. Sandy Brondello's team then put together an inspired exhibition win over the USA, playing a different brand of basketball than what was probably initially planned, but showing wildly encouraging signs going into Tokyo.
The Opals are in Group C for the Tokyo Olympics, drawn alongside Puerto Rico, China, and Belgium; the latter two both likely to challenge an Australian team that's still considered the best of the bunch.
Here's what to expect from the Opals' group action, which tips off on Monday (AEST).
The Australian Opals, in a nutshell
No Cambage means there seems to be an inherent need to crown another 'best player on the team', and, for all intents and purposes, that player is Ezi Magbegor. She's a versatile big who can run rim-to-rim, and plays with an impressive poise for a 21-year-old. These Opals, however, are talented across the board, and that depth will likely be what sees them go deep into this tournament. Leilani Mitchell will start at the point and is their main initiator, and she's flanked by Rebecca Allen and Steph Talbot, both of whom are really dynamic wing scorers. Magbegor and Cayla George provide both size and versatility up front, and there's some insurance with a veteran like Marianna Tolo ready to back them up. Jenna O'Hea and Katie-Rae Ebzery provide an important punch off the bench, too; especially the latter, who can penetrate well to create for herself and others.
How to advance
It's the same system for both the men's and women's portions of these Olympics. There are three groups of four teams. The top two teams in each group advance to the Finals Phase, along with the two best third-placed teams. The three teams that topped their respective groups, as well as the best second-placed team, will be put in one pot, and a draw will take place to see which of the remaining four teams they will face in the quarterfinals. From there, it's just a standard bracket all the way through to the medal games.
The Group Phase schedule (AEST)
July 27: Australia vs Belgium @ 6:20pm
July 30: China vs Australia @ 10pm
August 2: Australia vs Germany @ 10pm
All games will be played at the Saitama Super Arena.
Key player(s): Emma Meesseman, Julie Allemand
The Opals' group phase begins with a matchup against a tough Belgium team that's been on a bit of a roll in the international basketball space.
They followed up a fourth-place finish at the 2018 FIBA Women's World Cup with a bronze medal at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket, and did it with their beautiful style of play. This Belgium team has become known for its ball and player movement, led by Emma Meesseman, the Washington Mystics' star forward.
Belgium lost to Japan in a warmup game, and the tactic for opposing teams seems obvious: limit Meesseeman, and make someone else beat you. As long as Belgium can keep up team-first brand of basketball, they'll remain a threat to the Opals; if it's a one-woman show, then that's Australia's gain.
The Belgians would also be in a good position in these Olympics if they get production out of Julie Allemand, their starting point guard coming off an impressive rookie season with the Indiana Fever. Allemand's ability to create shots for herself, as well as hit the three-ball off the catch at an admirable rate, makes her the perfect running mate alongside Meesseman, and a player the Opals will need to contain in order to be in a position to win.
Key player(s): Li Meng, Han Xu, Li Yueru
China sure has ticked a lot of boxes heading into the Tokyo Olympics.
They swept through their FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament, including an impressive win over Spain, and have an intriguing mix of youth and experience that makes them a dark horse in this relatively stacked group.
This Chinese team can compete with the depth Australia has in his frontcourt, with Li Meng emerging as its engine, and a pair of young, imposing bigs in Han Xu, 6'9, and Li Yueru, 6'7. While the Opals have the pieces to match up well against a bigger Chinese group, the absence of Cambage doesn't help. The last time these two teams faced each other, Cambage didn't play, and Yueru came up big in a surprising win for China. Xu and Yueru are young, but are talented enough, and are buoyed by the necessary experience, to put a lot of pressure on the Opals.
The backcourt is where things get sketchy for China; Liwei Yang and Yuan Li will be required to do a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard, and there's a question whether they can compete with some of the guards they'll see in front of them. On paper, China looks to have the wings and bigs to compete with the Opals, but Australia's backcourt options should give them the edge over four quarters of basketball.
Key player(s): Jennifer O'Neill, Jazmon Gwathmey
Puerto Rico is the least talented team in this group, but don't be surprised if they cause some disruption.
They picked up an impressive win over a talented Brazil team in the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament to book this spot in Tokyo, and that was after a silver-medal finish at the recent FIBA Women's AmeriCup.
Jennifer O'Neill is a dynamic guard who can get to her spots - she had 30 points in that win over Brazil, and will be this team's primary creator - while Gwathmey is also a really accomplished scorer over her career, so she has the potential to cause issues.
At the end, though, against these Opals, size and depth matters. Puerto Rico just doesn't look to have the pieces up front to withstand a potential barrage from Magbegor and George, and even penetration from the likes of Talbot and Allen.