A multiple time Olympian and World Cup representative with the Opals, Jenni Screen understands what it takes to navigate the challenges of playing in the green and gold on the big stage.
Alongside an Olympic silver and bronze, Screen was an Opal for the historic 2006 gold medal run in Brazil. With the 2022 FIBA Women's World Cup just days from tip in Sydney, Screen joined ESPN's Ball and the Real World podcast to preview some of the key elements that will contribute to a successful campaign for Australia on home soil.
THE PRESSURE OF PLAYING AT HOME
Kane: The opportunity to play in a major tournament on home soil is rare. The Opals finished fourth in the 1994 World Cup in Australia, while they claimed Silver at the Sydney 2000 Olympic games.
Jenni: "It elevates it but it's a two-pronged sword. It elevates in the sense that the sixth player can be the crowd, supporting and becoming an extra player on your bench. At the same time, it also escalates the pressure, the pressure to do well on home soil. Some thrive in that environment and some really struggle.
"For some there will be a lot of pressure. Tess Madgen is captain for the first time, we know how much she loves to win, how passionate she is but there will be an element of pressure. Hopefully they can come together, trust in the system and use each other's energy in the positive to way to get the outcome they want, which I think ultimately is going up against the USA in the gold medal game."
A TOUGH GROUP AND FRANCE ON OPENING NIGHT
Kane: This year's version of the World Cup is radically changed from 2018 when the Opals claimed silver. The tournament in Sydney will begin with two groups of six teams, rather than four groups of four.
The change in format places the Opals among some powerhouse nations in women's basketball, with an opening night match-up against France set to produce a challenging opening to the tournament.
Jenni: "It's fraught with danger. France have always been our nemesis. In 2012 they knocked us out from potentially facing the USA in the gold medal game.
"They will be a bit underdone, they've lost Sandrine Gruda, their centre, their cog in the wheel, she's out with injury. They have a couple of others down with injury.
"I'm looking forward to the backcourt match-ups with Marine Johannes who is an amazing point guard who just played with the New York Liberty under Sandy Brondello. She will know bits and pieces about the Opals and how Sandy acts as a coach which gives an intriguing insight.
"All the work is done, the girls have been preparing for the World Cup for over 12 months, it doesn't matter who turns up. You may want an easy game on day one, but you have to beat everyone. If you have to beat France on day one, then bring it on and take it to them."
THE MAKEUP OF THE SQUAD
Kane: With Lauren Jackson's inclusion in the squad, the Opals head into the World Cup with plenty of size. Along with Jackson, Ezi Magbegor, Marianna Tolo and Cayla Francis give head coach Sandy Brondello four legitimate options to play at the five. Could this be an issue for roster balance?
Jenni: "My first thought was big. It's probably one of the biggest teams we've ever suited in terms of the four/five spots. Rolling the dice on Lauren (was a decision), I think it's great for women's basketball, I think it's great for the Opals, it's great for Australia. She'll have an impact even if it's ten minutes on the court.
"I'm only spit balling, but if I'm the coach I'm not playing (Jackson) against Mali and I'm not playing her against Japan, I'm just going to park her for the Europeans and let her bang and go to work. She may be 41 but when she steps on the court it's still Lauren Jackson.
"In terms of the point guard spot, Tess is a combo guard, we saw she did well against Japan earlier this year. The game has changed, there isn't really that defined point guard that we've known in the past and there are a lot more players that can float between positions if you will, so I think we'll be ok.
"I'm more worried about containing the ball at times (defensively) with the speed of some of the guards. Steph Talbot is an international defender, I back Tess in and then you have Kristy Wallace off the bench who is a pocket rocket and I'm a big fan of that girl. I think she'll be a little bit of an x-factor for the Opals."
THE RISE OF EZI MAGBEGOR
Kane: Ezi Magbegor recently turned 23 years old. By any definition, the Opals rising star is still in the infancy of her basketball career. Despite her age, Magbegor already has a World Cup silver medal from 2018, and an Olympic berth, producing an impressive individual performance in Tokyo.
Jenni: "We haven't seen the best of Ezi and I don't think we will until Paris (2024 Olympics) and beyond, maybe even the Los Angeles Olympics, she's still a baby and sometimes we forget that.
"It's like when Lauren made her Opals debut in the 1998 World Cup team at 18 years of age. The pressure has been on Ezi, but I think she's grown into who she is as a person, who she is as a player and what she's good at.
"This season in the WNBA we saw glimpses of what Ezi is going to be and that's exciting, I think you'll see her be quite dominant in this World Cup and that excites me. You have Ezi and then you have Lauren Jackson checking into the game for her potentially. Ezi will be whatever she wants to be and the greatest thing about that girl is not only is she going to be an amazing player, but she's also 100 percent an amazing person and humble as well."
A BRUTAL TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Kane: If the Opals are to progress all the way to a gold medal match-up, they will play eight games in ten days. In a club situation, the idea of playing a back-to-back-to-back is unheard of, but it's exactly what is in store for the group stage in Sydney.
How should the Opals navigate the opening days of the tournament and is it a concern for this squad?
Jenni: "You have to be smart as a coach with how your rotate because fatigue is going to be a factor come the medal rounds. I like that we have depth and experience so they can rotate early in games and I'm sure Sandy and the coaching staff have thought about that.
"In terms of the games, the Olympics are different, you play every other day. Sometimes if you have a bad game, you just want to play the next day, nobody wants to train, everyone is over training by that stage, you just want to play. It's not so much about how many games, it's about how you manage the players, making sure recovery is on point, sleep is on point and the rotations are on point.
"Also, the girls that aren't playing huge minutes have to stay fit and ready to go because they may need to be used in a moment. Eight games in ten days are hard but these girls are all pros, if they aren't fit now, I question if they should be wearing the green and gold so I say bring it on."
THE POWER THAT IS THE UNITED STATES
Kane: The United States will enter the tournament as red-hot favourites to claim gold. It makes sense, given the depth of talent combined with their imposing record of seven gold medals from the last nine World Cups dating back to 1986.
The record is imposing, but there is a changing of the guard with the US squad, so is there a waning fear factor surrounding this group?
Jenni: "I don't think we should ever fear them. We should always respect them, fear is not necessary, these girls are all professionals. I will say, I think they're more talented, I look at the roster and think it's amazing.
"What they have in depth, they lack in experience. Elena Delle Donne is back, but take out Sue Bird, take out Diana Taurasi, that's five World Cups each they've been to. You can't replace experience; I don't care how talented you are as a young player.
"Playing on the world stage day in and day out, experience buys you time and gets you wins in my opinion. I think we are at a time potentially where someone could knock them off. It's the ones that don't fear them that have a chance. China is coming and Belgium for me, they always seem like they can knock off a team at any time."
Catch the full episode with Screen wherever you get your podcasts, along with recent episodes with Opals head coach Sandy Brondello and Sara Blicavs.