Why is Dawn Staleys sixth team at South Carolina poised to mimic the fourth and fifth teams, and add to a program that is growing into one of the countrys elite?
Because the talent is so much better.
Those other teams had talent, but these teams have more. That fourth team had an outstanding group of seniors, ones who had been through the struggles and battles of Staleys first three years and finally tasted success in the fourth. That team, led by LaKeisha Sutton, Markeisha Grant, Courtney Newton, Charenee Stephens and Ebony Wilson, was a collection of fighters. They played with their hearts so far ahead of their talent that it was fun to watch them earn their way to the Sweet 16.
That team will go down as a cornerstone of Staleys tenure. They were the players who believed, who kept coming back after every grueling day of practice, who dealt with the black eye of a publicized departure and still reported for more. You just dont replace that.
Except when you replace it with more talent.
Last year repeated the success because the talent was good enough to beat nearly everybody. This year, its more of the same. The Gamecocks have experience and talent back from a 25-win team, and they added what theyve been missing height.
USC can offer an obstacle in the paint against the SECs other bigs. When the Gamecocks have lost over the past two years, its usually been because the other team had a big player to throw the ball to. Now, USC has that in Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates, and Aleighsa Welch can play inside and out.
Having the option to play three-guard or play 2-3 with three bigs is an option that Staley didnt have before. Keeping in mind that North Greenville didnt have a player over 6 feet tall, the Gamecocks knew the Crusaders couldnt defend inside, so they threw the ball inside. The result: 78 points in the paint.
The Gamecocks obviously wont get that every night, but they also know they have options to score. There is no one person to look at when in need of a clutch basket. There are a whole lot of them.
The talent to mix and match leaves Staley with a deeper bench than shes had in years past, and the parts are interchangeable. There isnt a lot of dropoff when substitutions are made.
Its a team built to continue. And with the way Staley is recruiting, the continuation should stretch for years.
Thats in the future, though. The present is that this is a team that will continue to win, continue to finish high in the SEC standings and continue to make the NCAA tournament.
Toughness turned to talent, and having a mix of the two is more than plenty to keep the Gamecocks pointed forward.