As the injuries and losses piled up during Dawn Staley's first season at South Carolina, the Gamecocks' 39-year-old coach discovered hard work only goes so far.
"I learned you have to have players," Staley said Tuesday. "No matter how hard your team plays, no matter how much work you put into it, it can get you to a certain point. But you have to have the talent to get over the hump and win games."
The Gamecocks finished 10-18 last season and lost their top two players - seniors Brionna Dickerson and Demetress Adams - to season-ending knee injuries in consecutive games in January.
The Gamecocks received a talent infusion with the arrival of the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class and the emergence of a transfer guard from Fiji who grew up playing an all-girls sport called netball.
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Freshman Kelsey Bone, a 6-foot-5 center from Texas rated the country's No. 2 prospect, drew the most attentionTuesday during USC's media day. But Staley expects Valerie Nainima, who sat out last season after transferring from Long Island University, to make a big splash, as well.
"She's going to be on the floor, whether it's at point or at two (guard)," Staley said. "She's a player. She can flat-out play."
Nainima has impressed the coaching staff with her perimeter shooting - a skill she developed playing netball, a sport that requires women to wear skirts, pass with no dribbling, and shoot at a rim with no backboard.
"It's like basketball, but women play it and we just pass," said Nainima, a 5-5 junior who averaged 20.4 points her final season at Long Island.
Nainima is competing at point guard with returning starter Samone Kennedy and Ieasia Walker, a member of the Parade All-American team along with Bone.
Staley believes team chemistry has improved. Three freshmen from last year's team have left the program, including two players recruited by former coach Susan Walvius.
"I think this team is a lot more cohesive, just from the beginning," Staley said.
She said the starting five remains in flux. Bone, who is four inches taller than the Gamecocks' next-tallest player, would appear to be a lock for the starting lineup.
But Staley said every starting position will be earned.
"Should she start? Talent-wise, yes," Staley said. "Am I just going to give it to her? Absolutely not."
Similarly, there are few freebies on the Gamecocks' schedule. Though it is a little less daunting than the 2008-09 slate, which featured games against all of the Final Four teams from the previous season, there are tough, nonconference dates with Penn State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and North Carolina.
"There's really no gimmes," Kennedy said. "So we're going to have to go out and fight every single night."
This year Staley hopes to have the talent to make the hard work pay off.
Video: Players preview the upcoming season