SYDNEY, Australia -- Olympic champions USA tip off at the women's World Cup on Thursday with a new-look team missing some of their biggest stars, but even without Brittney Griner and Sue Bird the basketball powerhouse are strong favorites for a fourth straight title.
Griner, a standout of their Tokyo Olympic winning team, continues to languish in a Russian prison while Bird and fellow long-time stalwart Diana Taurasi have retired.
Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Kahleah Copper and Ariel Atkins are among the Tokyo Olympians back in the red, white and blue for the 12-team tournament in Sydney.
With a deep pool of talent, several promising youngsters are knocking on the door, including college player of the year Aliyah Boston and WNBA rookie of the year Rhyne Howard.
"It just shows women's basketball is in good hands," said Indiana Fever's NaLyssa Smith, another of the youthful cohort. "The future is strong for us. We are going to learn."
Washington Mystics shooting guard Atkins added: "We definitely are younger, but the way we want to play, we want to push the pace and respect the coach and USA Basketball by playing the game the right way."
The USA, on a 22-game win streak in the competition, are pitted alongside Belgium and China in group play, avoiding world number three and hosts Australia.
The Americans, who swept past Japan to win a seventh straight Olympic crown last year, also face Jonquel Jones's Bosnia and Herzegovina, a South Korean side missing marquee star Park Ji-su and minnows Puerto Rico.
Beaten finalists in 2018, Australia are one of only two teams other than USA or the former Soviet Union to win the World Cup, and they have a much tougher task in Group B.
They were drawn with Asian champions Japan, Tokyo Olympic bronze medallists France, sixth-ranked Canada, Serbia and Mali.
- Jackson back at 41 -
World number two Spain failed to qualify.
The top four teams from each group progress to the quarter-finals before the 10-day tournament culminates on October 1, with the winner earning a coveted spot at the Paris 2024 Olympics.
The Americans open against Belgium with the plight of Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil, casting a shadow over the tournament
The 31-year-old, who was in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury, was charged with smuggling narcotics and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.
Russia do not have a team in Sydney after being axed from the tournament following the invasion of Ukraine.
Australia's "Opals" also begin their campaign on Thursday, against European juggernauts France, with Lauren Jackson back on their 12-strong roster after she remarkably came back from years of retirement to be selected aged 41.
"It's been a very big ride, an intense one," said Jackson, a four-time Olympic medallist and seven-time WNBA all-star who first played for the Opals 25 years ago.
"The girls are feeling pretty good and it's a really exciting time, but a nervous time for me."
Now a mother, Australia's greatest women's player retired in 2016 with a persistent knee injury before launching a return in April to make her fifth World Cup.
Ramu Tokashiki, Stephanie Mawuli and Maki Takada hold the key to Japan challenging for another podium spot off the back of their Olympic silver medal while Chicago Sky star Emma Meesseman will be crucial for Belgium.
She predicted Belgium would play a "beautiful" brand of basketball as they look to better their fourth place in 2018.
"I know the team has had a good preparation, and they're ready mentally and physically," she said.
© Agence France-Presse