Dawn Staley is not setting the bar low for her second season at South Carolina.
The four-time Olympic gold medal-winner expects the Gamecocks to make the NCAA tournament.
"If we stay healthy, I don't foresee us not being one of the 64 teams," Staley said recently.
That might seem like bold talk from a coach whose first USC team finished 10-18 and in next to last in the SEC with a 2-12 conference mark. But Staley raised expectations after signing a top-5 recruiting class, a group that included the No. 2 prospect in the country - 6-foot-5 center Kelsey Bone.
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"Talent," Staley said. "There's no substitute for it."
The mission for Staley and her staff is to teach the talented newcomers to play with maximum intensity - a process that was slow to develop in Staley's first year.
It took season-ending injuries to the Gamecocks' top two players - guard Brionna Dickerson and forward Demetress Adams - for the younger players to realize how hard they needed to work. By then, the season was nearly over.
And though the Gamecocks are still young - there are no seniors on the roster - Staley hopes returning starters Samone Kennedy, La'Keisha Sutton and Jewel May can show the freshmen the way.
Coaches had Sutton room with Bone and freshman point guard Ieasia Walker to help speed the learning curve.
"This time last year, I was probably like a deer lost in the headlights," said Sutton, a sophomore who is the team's leading returning scorer at 11.0 ppg. "But coming in, I know what the coaching staff expects and what (Staley) wants out of me. So I try to help the freshmen, mainly because I room with them. I think we'll be fine. They listen, so that's a good thing."
Bone was a Parade All-American last year after averaging 19.2 points and 8.7 rebounds for her high school in Houston. But during preseason practices, Staley noticed Bone taking trips off and waiting too long to start fighting for position in the paint.
"If we can get her to play hard every play, we're going to be able to get to her talent," Staley said. "But if she gets lazy and she gets tired and she always needs a blow, she's going to be in foul trouble. She's going to be on the bench. So we need her playing hard all the time."
While coaches hope Bone supplies interior scoring, Staley has seen Sutton add another dimension to her game. After getting many of her points last year attacking the basket, Sutton now is driving and dishing to open teammates.
"I definitely feel like last year I was able to get my feet wet and make a name for myself. So this year people have to respect my drive and my ability to create," said Sutton, a unanimous selection on the SEC's All-Freshman team. "But I'm looking to pass it out more to my teammates so they can get a feel and a rhythm, too."
"She's using her drive to be a passer, and that's something she did not do last year," Staley said. "She just put her head down and went. Now she's seeing the floor. She's got great options."
One of those perimeter options is Valerie Nainima, a Fiji-born transfer from Long Island University who averaged 20.4 ppg during her final season at LIU. Nainima practiced with the Gamecocks last year while sitting out under NCAA transfer rules, so she understands what Staley expects.
The freshmen are still figuring it out. Ashley Bruner, a first-year forward from Oklahoma, was held out of a couple preseason practices for disciplinary reasons.
"Sometimes you have to learn the hard way. You adjust and get used to it eventually," Bruner said. "Some of us haven't gotten completely used to it."
The sooner the better, especially if USC hopes to reach Staley's goal of making the NCAA tournament.