By Doug Williams | July 15, 2015, 2:32 p.m. (ET)
Valencia McFarland (C) is challenged by Carla Escalera and Carla Cortijo of Puerto Rico during a preliminary round match at the XVI Pan American Games at CODE Alcade on Oct. 22, 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

When Breanna Stewart thinks back to her first Pan American Games in 2011, a couple of things stand out to her.

The first was just how special it was to participate at the event in Guadalajara, Mexico. She was the only high school player on the U.S. women’s basketball team. Everything was new. She got a chance to play against veteran international players in an atmosphere she likens to a “smaller scale Olympics.”

“It was fun, with the athlete village,” said Stewart, who went on to become a star at Connecticut. “You interact with other athletes from other sports.”

But the other memory isn’t so sweet. The U.S. lost its first two games and finished seventh.

Now Stewart gets a second chance. She’s on the 12-woman American squad for the Pan American Games in Toronto.

“USA Basketball, you don’t want seventh place,” she said. “You want first place.”

The same is true for the U.S. men, who haven’t won a Pan Am gold since 1983, when Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Sam Perkins helped the U.S. go 8-0.

Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s national team director, said he is “very confident” the United States can put together a team composed of college and professional players (from the NBA Development League or overseas) to compete for gold. He said USA Basketball takes very seriously its reputation of being “one of the strongest, if not the strongest, federations in the world.”

Stewart Leads Veteran Women’s Group

Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward, is the most experienced player on coach Lisa Bluder’s team. She’s a six-time gold medalist for USA Basketball who was a part of the team that won the 2014 FIBA World Championship. That win earned the United States a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games.

Stewart is joined by several others who’ve won medals on U.S. teams in international play: Linnae Harper of Kentucky; Moriah Jefferson of UConn; Stephanie Mavunga of North Carolina; Tiffany Mitchell of South Carolina; Kelsey Plum of Washington; and Taya Reimer of Notre Dame. Players making their U.S. debuts are Sophie Brunner of Arizona State; Alaina Coates of South Carolina; Caroline Coyer of Villanova; Shatori Walker-Kimbrough of Maryland; and Courtney Williams of Texas A&M.

The U.S. will be in Group A, along with Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The top two teams from Groups A and B will advance into medal play, with the gold-medal game July 20.

Stewart, college basketball’s National Player of the Year in 2014-15 and a three-time Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Final Four, sees Brazil and Canada among the toughest opponents. But she believes once she and her teammates get some time, they’ll be ready.

“Once we get used to how each other plays, it’s going to be fun,” Stewart said.

Collegians And Pros Look To Bring The Men’s Team To The Top

The U.S. men's team locked up its spot at the 2016 Olympics last year by winning the World Cup in Spain. That team was made up of NBA players.

In Toronto, the 12-man team is a mix of collegians and pros.

Ford said the coaching staff — led by Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who will be a head coach of a U.S. team for the first time — will build a roster that can compete with more veteran national teams.

“I think our college players are very, very good players and we know that,” Ford said. “They’ve always done well for us. But they’re 21, 22 years old, and when you play against 28- and 30- and 32-year-olds, they’re physically at a different level.”

Players with pro experience will add “maturity and some strength” to the U.S. roster, he said. And Few, he said, brings “a style of play that is very conducive to international basketball in terms of fast pace, a free-flowing offense and taking advantage of athletic ability.”

The U.S. men are in Group A with Brazil, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. If Team USA finishes in the top two of its group, it will advance to medal-round play. The U.S. team opens against Venezuela on July 21. Group B consists of Argentina, Canada, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The gold-medal game is July 25.

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.