By Paulo Kennedy - Guest Writer during the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women.
It might be tempting to treat Cuba as a fallen powerhouse, but you can bet the Jayco Opals won’t be in tonight’s opening game of the FIBA World Championship for Women in Istanbul.
From 1986 to 1996 the Cubans managed five straight top six placing at Olympics or World Championships and grabbed seventh in 1998.
But then things started to slide, falling out of the top eight in 2000 and 2002, finishing 11th in 2006 and not qualifying for a major tournament since… until now.
Last year the island nation made an emphatic statement they are back, peeling off a 5-1 record and toppling Brazil and then Canada in the medal round to claim FIBA Americas Championship for Women.
The star of the show was shooting guard Yamara Amargo, who was third in the tournament in scoring with 18.4 points per game, a figure that would have been higher if she hadn’t finished the tournament with a broken finger.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Cuba’s showing in 2013 was they stunned Brazil in the semi-final with their gun scorer sidelined.
Not a great shooting team, the Cubans blew the game open with a 20 offensive rebounds to nine performance, then held on as the Brazilians charged late.
They might not get the headlines, but the blue collar pair of Clenia Noblet and Marlen Cepeda are crucial to this team.
Despite standing just 188 and 189cm respectively, this strongly built frontcourt duo grabbed 26 boards between them in that semi-final, including 11 offensive.
Without Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage the Jayco Opals haven't receive big scoring contributions from their bigs in the lead-up to Turkey, but their rebounding has been strong and that will need to continue against Cuba.
In their five wins at last year’s FIBA Americas the Cubans averaged 16 offensive boards and were plus-28 in that department.
But in their one loss to Canada in group play, the Central Americans grabbed just seven and were minus-nine.
This forced them to spend more time at the defensive end instead of making their opponents work, and Canada’s board work starved them of transition opportunities.
The latter will be vitally important for the Aussies.
Amargo and small forward Leidys Oquendo are exquisite talents, whose street basketball roots are obvious in the way they can slice through traffic and finish from awkward positions.
The Cubans run basic, screen-based offensive sets with the primary aim of opening driving lanes, from which their gun wings score or create offensive rebounding opportunities for their hard-working bigs.
Expect the Jayco Opals to get into the passing lanes early in the offence, preventing ball movement and forcing the Cuban athletes to penetrate into established help defence.
The other key will be making their point guards work so the ball enters the offence with a chunk of the shot clock expired.
While emerging ball-handler Ineidis Casanova generates plenty of love from her teammates with her slick instinctive passing, Oyanaisy Gelis is the steadying influence the Aussies will be looking to disrupt.
In last year’s FIBA Americas final the multi-talented 30-year-old racked up 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals.
At the Jayco Opals’ offensive end, it is important to beat the defence with ball movement, rather than get caught in one-on-one battles with the athletic Cubans.
The islanders love getting into the passing lanes, but their defence can be reactive, so if the Aussies can execute with precision expect some good opportunities close to the basket, either on post seals or backdoor cuts.
The Aussies also need to be ready for Cuba’s zone, which begins as a halfcourt trap and then continues to look for double-team opportunities throughout the shot clock.
Again, precision ball movement can pick this defence apart, but it’s important the Opals don’t settle for perimeter shots that spark the Cuban running game.
As is so often the case, this is a tricky first-up proposition for Australia.
Cuba are experienced with an average age of 29. They are athletic, strong and streaky, and when they get the wind in their sails it is very hard to turn the ship around.
Amargo, Oquendo and Gelis are all dangerous with the ball, and all shot 40 per cent or better from long range at last year’s FIBA Americas.
This trio has been at the forefront during Cuba’s preparations in 2014 too, which has included a gold medal triumph over Puerto Rico at the Centrobasket, an overtime ‘friendly’ win over Canada and a large defeat at the hands of Spain upon arrival in Europe.
The keys to success for the Jayco Opals are controlling the boards, exploring with discipline in transition, moving the ball in the halfcourt, and then slowing their aggressive opponents going the other way.
It’s not an easy task, but this versatile Australian team appears ready for the challenge.