Halfway through SEC media day on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee, South Carolina women’s basketball showed up, and things got a little more ... relaxed.
While most players and coaches from other schools sat quietly at their assigned tables, looking bored or patiently long-suffering, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley and her star players, forward A’ja Wilson and guard Tyasha Harris, came in laughing. Wilson heckled Staley as media members pressed around her. Harris and Wilson danced around the room with posters emblazoned with their faces. Wilson videobombed Staley’s interview.
All in all, if the Gamecocks are feeling any pressure as the defending national champions, they did not show it in the slightest.
But despite Staley and her players’ carefree attitude at times, they also addressed some of the most pressing questions fans and observers have for the team as it tries to make it back to the top without the talents of three departed starters.
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Earlier this week, we highlighted the most pressing questions for South Carolina going into media day. Here are their early answers, plus some bonus info.
Is it national championship or bust? Not really.
Wilson was candid when asked how she would define success for this year’s team.
“Success this season would of course be winning an SEC championship and also just getting to the Final Four and winning a national championship again. That’s something that’s everyone’s (definition of) success,” Wilson said, before adding that she considered the team’s 2014-2015 season, her freshman season, a success, despite not winning a championship, only reaching the Final Four.
“It all depends on how you play and how you feel as a team,” Wilson said. “Of course championships are the biggest thing but if you are playing well, great basketball together, and chips are just not falling, (you’re) still playing as a system and playing well together. Of course national championships is the goal. Of course SEC championships is the goal, but at the end of the day, if you’re playing well together, everything is going to fall into place if it’s meant to be.”
Staley underlined that point by saying that she doesn’t use the words “national champion” when talking to this year’s squad. In other words, last season’s success is not driving Staley or Wilson’s expectations for this one.
It’s also interesting to note that Staley didn’t treat a fifth straight SEC regular season title as a forgone conclusion, which leads us to our second question.
Who, if anyone, can stop South Carolina from its fifth straight SEC title? Several teams.
The most likely contenders include Mississipi State, Missouri and maybe Tennessee. Each team brings star power back and are top 20 squads. The slight edge goes to Mississipi State, which has more depth than Missouri and only has to face South Carolina once, at home, as opposed to Tennessee, which must face the Gamecocks twice in a home-and-home.
But as coach after coach pointed out, the SEC put in a national-best eight teams in the NCAA tournament last season and could put even more in this go-around. Top to bottom, the conference is extremely competitive, and even rebuilding teams like Vanderbilt and Arkansas have talented coaches implementing systems that could blossom only a few years down the road.
The SEC media poll had the Gamecocks on top again, but the league’s press release does not indicate that they were a unanimous choice. That’s understandable, and due mostly to the unknowns that are still very much part of this team.
Speaking of ...
Will chemistry be an issue? Impossible to say, but all early indications say no.
There’s only one way to know for sure how the Gamecocks will mesh on the court, and that’s to actually watch them play. As of now, only Staley and her staff have access to that, and the rest of us will need to wait until Nov. 3, when South Carolina plays Coker in an exhibition game. I would not recommend trying to sneak into practice for an early preview.
That being said, Staley, Wilson and Harris’s casual comfort in front of the media on Thursday is a positive, albeit small, sign that this team is not feeling panicky trying to recreate last season, which would be a recipe for frayed nerves and strained play.
Then there’s the fact that the Gamecocks’ freshmen will not be relied upon to contribute right away. Instead, Staley is replacing her lost starters with a combination of veterans like junior Doniyah Cliney and senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore and transfers like Alexis Jennings and Lindsey Spann. Wilson had high praise for Spann, a graduate student from Penn State, saying that she has meshed well with her new teammates and brought a lot of good basketball ideas to practice. Staley, for her part, has been complimentary of Jennings, who sat out last season as a transfer from Kentucky but still practiced with the team and is a known entity.
But the most intriguing news to come out of media day was Staley’s announcement that the team is seeking a waiver to allow Tennessee transfer guard Te’a Cooper to play immediately, skipping the year off typically required for undergraduate transfers. Staley said it would take a week for the NCAA to decide whether Cooper can play or not, but she sounded optimistic, and the fact that she brought it up at all suggests she thinks there’s a decent chance of it happening.
Cooper, a highly-rated recruit out of high school with experience at an elite program like Tennessee, would be a welcome addition to the Gamecocks lineup, bringing both talent and veteran savvy to a squad that can’t get enough of both.
How will other SEC teams defend against A’ja Wilson, and how will she respond? It’s going to be fun to watch.
Virtually every opposing SEC coach had the same response when asked about gameplanning for Wilson: “You can’t stop her, you can only hope to contain her.”
In other words, she’s so good, she can single-handedly win a game. So the best, most realistic strategy is to make her really, really, really good, instead of great.
Coaches said they planned to do so by collapsing inside, potentially double-teaming Wilson and attempting to limit her touches, especially in areas of the floor where she shoots a high percentage, such as the paint.
The issue for opposing teams is that Wilson has the size to match up against taller players in the paint, but the speed and footwork to blow past them and challenge even some guards.
The issue for South Carolina is that if teams are focusing all their defensive energy on Wilson, other players need to prove themselves to be legitimate threats to space the floor. Harris acknowledged as much herself, noting that opposing defenses often sagged off her last season to cover Wilson and that she hopes to take advantage of that this year by becoming a more assertive shooter.
Bonus: South Carolina’s White House controversy is still alive and well
As other SEC coaches leapt to defend Staley and her team against the White House, which has yet to invite the national champs for a visit, Staley herself addressed the situation — and left us with questions.
Staley simply said that she had heard nothing further about the invitation and that she remains focused on getting an invite to the NCAA tournament in March.
But she didn’t say why no invite had come despite a several-week-old statement from former South Carolina governor and current ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley that one would be coming “later in the fall.” She also did not definitively say whether she or members of her team would visit if an invite ever did come.
Once the season starts, the whole thing will likely slip out of people’s minds, but it’s still surprising that the White House has prolonged the situation by ignoring a successful coach who had previously said she would go if invited. As other coaches said Thursday, it felt like a “slap in the face” to women’s basketball, and while it is not hugely important in the context of the new season, it’s unfortunate nonetheless.