NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) - Even for the mighty USA, their dominance of the FIBA U19 category down the years has been simply extraordinary and the question remains as to how long their golden streak can continue.
Will anyone stop them making it a sizzling seven titles in a row at the FIBA U19 Women's Basketball World Cup in Udine and Cividale del Friuli?
Also at the last edition of the U19 Worlds in Chekhov, host nation Russia showed their teeth and it took a tremendous MVP display from A'Ja Wilson to get USA over the line as they landed title under the watchful eye of new USA senior head coach Dawn Staley.
There were important cameos too from the likes of Azura Stevens and Napheesa Collier in the title game, which USA won 78-70 - a factor which is always critical for any champion team.
It was a far cry from the 61-28 walkover in Klaipeda in 2013, when USA stormed past France off the back of a leading role by MVP Breanna Stewart - but again with a great cameo from the likes of Morgan Tuck throughout the competition. It was the second gold medal for Stewart after she shone brightly in Chile back in 2011 along with Bria Hartley.
Without digging further back into history and focusing on the future, it might be that USA have to embrace the kind of challenge they had from Russia in 2015 – rather than the blowouts which preceded their last title. I certainly hope this will be the case and there is little doubt that Australia can potentially give them the stiffest test.
Buoyed by that first ever title at the FIBA U17 Worlds, much of the squad will be made up from this historic gold-medal winning team and while young as a group, they will hopefully have MVP Eziyoda Magbegor to lead their charge. She brings experience of having played in Russia two years ago.
Vitally, Australia play team basketball and do have some depth and varied offensive options. If they stand up to the physical test, they can, and will make the podium. They are also a challenger equipped for gold and a dethroning of USA.
Russia will be the best of the rest if they have their big-hitters out in Maria Vadeeva, Raisa Musina and Kamilla Ogun - although this is yet to be confirmed, with the first pair of this trio penciled in for FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017 senior duty in a few weeks.
France are actually the continental champions, having won at the FIBA U18 Women's European Championship in Sopron. But it looks like MVP Alexia Chartereau won't be available as she is also heading towards a senior team initiation. They look solid and average on paper as a result.
The smart choice would be a USA, Australia, Russia podium at this stage - with lots to still be determined in respect of Russia.
However, I feel that as always, the best women’s basketball nation on the planet has the destiny of the silverware entirely in their own hands. If they play well and to their potential, they should win - even if Australia are going to be exciting and a tough nut to crack.
Now USA have selected their team and one which includes Crystal Dangerfield who knows what it is like to win gold at this event, having played in the Chekhov climax back in 2015, they have a talented player with a chunk of priceless know-how.
However, some people have pointed to the fact that perhaps this time USA don't have a major standout like a Wilson or a Stewart to get them home if things get tricky. Dangerfield might have cause to argue.
But, even if this is the case, it will be about how USA gel together as a team. Unlike Australia or Russia, they don't have the established chemistry. Their main rivals have played together with few changes on the international circuit through all of the age groups. In contrast, USA have chopped half the team that won the FIBA Americas U18 Women's Championship last year.
Obviously they have the talent pool to make such radical changes, but it does put a major onus on head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. The missing ingredient when they were beaten at U17 last year was the most basic principle of sharing the ball effectively. Too much one-on-one play cost them in my opinion. Perhaps a legacy of a lot of players being dominant in high school and too many people wanting to still be the number one whenever they are on the court at this immeasurably more demanding level.
Whether that is true or baloney, I don’t know. But I would point out that the standout USA players of recent editions have been stars, but also smart with it. Usually keeping their interventions for when the team really needed it and like all top class players, knowing when to shift up the gears and yet also ease of the gas so others can contribute.
It is a note of caution for those USA basketball players heading to Italy in a little over six weeks. Collectively, if they play together, USA will keep their historic and jaw-dropping winning streak intact and extend it to seven consecutive titles. The cream normally rises to the top, but not if it feels forced as was arguably the case in Zaragoza.
I look forward to seeing this latest USA crop touch down and having already seen the likes of Dangerfield and Joyner Holmes playing in the flesh at previous global events, they are still the major favorites in my eyes. I am also looking for newly crowned NCAA champion Tyasha Harris to show her best in a USA vest.
It's just the reigning champs can’t take anything for granted as the gap might be closing and Zaragoza 2016 should act as a major warning light.
By Paul Nilsen for FIBA.com