By Paulo Kennedy - Guest Writer during the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women.
It’s been hard not to smile watching the way the Jayco Opals have played in their opening two games.
Erin Phillips described it as old school basketball, and her team has certainly been handing out some serious lessons.
It starts with relentless defensive pressure up the court, then tireless switching and rotating in the halfcourt that forces opponents into rushed shots late in the clock.
Once Phillips or Leilani Mitchell have they ball the push it almost without fail, while the Jayco Opals’ quintet of talls motor up the floor to establish deep seals.
The ball invariably goes into the post, from where the bigs do an excellent job of identifying the open teammate, and then the ball movement to beat the defensive rotations is at times breathtaking.
It’s the sort of stuff you would show to your junior team.
But as the Jayco Opals take on Belarus for first place in Group C tonight, they might feel like they are looking into a mirror at times.
While the big story for the Europeans has been the absence of centres Anastasiya Verameyenka and Marina Kress on maternity leave, this in some ways has allowed the Belarusians to go back to the future.
With a smaller and more mobile line-up their play has been compared to the enterprising style that sparked their resurgence as a basketball nation in the second half of the 2000s.
Their guards push the ball constantly, particularly on the pass, their bigs run the floor hard and get early deep seals.
Superstar big Yelena Leuchanka is outstanding at establishing low post position and is an accomplished finisher inside.
Double-team and she will find the open shooter with superb vision and passing skills, and then once the ball moves on she can relocate and nail the jumper from mid-range.
Leuchanka must be the primary focus of the Jayco Opals defence, as she is the wheel all the other cogs rotate around.
The Belarusians aren’t a one-trick pony though.
If you deny the early post entries, their bigs instantly respond by setting transition on-balls, from which they find the rolling screener or move the ball, Opal-like, to find an open look.
The perimeter player to watch is Katsiaryna Snytsina, a do-it-all guard who picks her moments like a patient assassin.
As Belarus came from 11 points down in the final quarter to defeat Cuba, Leuchanka and Snytsina combined for 11 of the teams 16 points – including the winning triple from Snytsina - and grabbed eight rebounds in the last seven minutes.
This is a duo to be reckoned with.
Snytsina is very dangerous when her three-point shot is dropping, but not as adept inside, suggesting the Opals will close out hard and force the 29-year-old to make plays at the basket over a big.
The other shooter to watch is Tatsiana Likhtarovich, who is shooting 50 per cent from range but just 29 per cent from inside in this tournament, while reserve centre Maryia Papova has stepped up her game in Verameyenka’s absence.
There is plenty to like about this Belarus team. They possess the speed, skill, inside targets, shooters and ball movement of the Jayco Opals, but where they can’t match the Aussies is in depth.
Cuba and Korea simply couldn’t keep up as Brendan Joyce rotated his talented players at breakneck speed, so expect more of the same.
The key to victory starts with Phillips, Mitchell and Tessa Lavey slowing the ball-handlers, it continues with Penny Taylor, Bec Allen and the wing crew denying kick-ahead passes, and the Aussies’ high-speed bigs beating Leuchanka and Co down the court to deny early entries.
While slowing Belarus’ transition game is a big first step, this will also be the biggest test so far of the Jayco Opals’ aggressive halfcourt defence, with the Europeans playing a high IQ read-and-react offensive game.
But all the signs so far suggest this Australian team is a fearsome defensive unit, and if they can again generate easy points from their defence tonight a place in the quarter-finals awaits.