When the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were stalled last month, the news hit close to home.
Women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti was named as an assistant coach for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team for the upcoming Olympic games. Rizzotti said players felt a “bit of relief” that the games were rescheduled for next year instead of canceled, and the squad will regroup and discuss training and communication for the year ahead.
“Between the athletes not feeling like they were going to have the opportunity to be ready, the world not really being sure that it was going to be able to happen, I think there was probably a little bit of relief that the announcement was made,” Rizzotti said.
Seven years into her 17-year tenure at Hartford’s helm, Rizzotti got her first taste of coaching USA Basketball when she was named an assistant coach for the U-18 National Team. In 2010 and 2011, she was the head coach for the U-18 and U-19 National Teams, respectively.
Following an induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, Rizzotti became a national team scout for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
“Throughout the last 14 years between being a head coach or a scout or on the junior national team committee, I think I’ve been building up to the opportunity,” Rizzotti said. “I just felt really, really lucky to be selected to be on this Olympic team staff.”
Rizzotti said the national team’s preparations for the 2020 games began when its 2016 gold medal campaign finished. Since then, the committee has been working on selecting players for the player pool and building cohesion between athletes.
The United States took home the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup, which guaranteed a ticket to Tokyo for the winner. The team was still required to play qualifying matches between November and February, going a perfect 6-0, in the meantime.
The team also embarked on a pair of domestic tours during that span to challenge select college programs to exhibition games, which Rizzotti said increased the squad’s chemistry and raised exposure for the national team.
“I thought it accomplished a lot, the time we spent together from September until April, so certainly we don’t want to feel like that time was wasted,” Rizzotti said. “Now, it’s just a matter of having conversations about what next year looks like to try to keep the momentum going.”
The group of players that get to compete in training camps and matches are chosen by the Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee, which now has another year to refine the pool of athletes that will be brought to Tokyo.
While uncertainty hangs over the fate of the 2020 WNBA season due to the pandemic, Rizzotti said giving players an extra year of development will help the team and the player pool will likely not change.
“I would imagine that the committee would consider if there was anyone else they want to add to the pool,” Rizzotti said. “But I do think that they’re pretty set on the 20 to 30 women that they have been considering over the course of the last four years.”
That four-year process of player selection and preparation between Olympics will also look different during the next cycle. Time between Tokyo and the next games will shrink to three years, and other international competitions will begin to overlap with the Olympics.
Four regional tournaments will be held next year, and the results of those tournaments will determine which countries are selected to compete in the World Cup qualifiers in February 2022.
“I imagine there’ll be some challenges there for the committee and USA Basketball to figure out how to finish up this quad while still being prepared for the next one,” Rizzotti said. “The reality is that the national team pool for 2024 is likely to look a lot different than the pool for 2020.”
With the Olympics postponed and the NCAA suspending recruitment and other in-person team activities until the end of May, Rizzotti and other Olympic coaches now have a lot of unexpected time on their hands until student-athletes return to prepare for the 2020-21 season.
“I planned on honestly missing a lot of recruiting windows because of the Olympics and so now I’m missing them because of the coronavirus, everybody’s missing them,” Rizzotti said. “There’s no guarantee about when our athletes are going to be able to come back on campus, so I think as a staff we’re just trying to figure out creative ways to keep them engaged and stay connected.”