Dawn Staley is eager to wipe away the memories from the disappointing 14-15 record posted by her USC women’s basketball team last season.
Thanks to a new NCAA rule, she got a jump-start on that task.
The Gamecocks opened practice Monday under a regulation that allows teams to begin preseason drills 40 days before their season opener. During that time, teams can practice 30 times. USC opens against Xavier at home on Nov. 12.
Staley was excited to get a glimpse of a squad that will look much different than the one that compiled a 7-9 record in the SEC, even though only one senior graduated.
“We’re real excited,” Staley said. “Our players have been working extremely hard in the offseason. I’m sure they are tired of running on the track and working out without the basketball on a consistent basis. We’re pretty excited from a coaching-staff standpoint because we finally get to put our hands on them earlier than we’re used to. I think the extra week and half will serve us pretty good.”
Staley was not expecting to have to replace her two leading scorers from a year ago.
Shortly after the end of last season, All-SEC second-team pick and AP Newcomer of the Year Kelsey Bone decided to transfer to Texas A&M after one season with the Gamecocks. Leading scorer Valerie Nainima sustained an ACL injury in her right knee during the summer and underwent successful surgery on Aug. 6.
That left Staley without a combined 31 points from her top rebounder and top 3-pointer shooter from a year ago. But she thinks that will allow some of the returning players to step into new roles.
“I think sometimes you gain by losing,” Staley said. “Hopefully, in this instance, that will be the case. I think our team is closer and our team is in a good place from a physiological standpoint. When some doors close, it opens up opportunities for other players. It’s an opportunity for a lot of players to contribute.”
Junior guard La’Keisha Sutton averaged 9.7 points per game last year and is a double-digit scorer for her career. But Maryland transfer Marah Strickland might provide the biggest impact.
The 6-foot guard sat out last season after leaving the Terrapins; she ranks in the top ten in program history in 3-pointers made and attempted. She will be counted to on to pick up some of the scoring slack.
“I think Marah is going to bring some instant offense,” Staley said. “She is going to be able to score. I’m not too worried about the ability to put the ball in the hole.”
Strickland is excited to start her USC career after practicing for a full season without being able to play.
“My personal goals are to lead this team the best I can and help us accomplish as many victories as possible,” Strickland said. “I’m really excited to get on the floor and play with the girls. Having the whole year (off) has been tougher than I thought it would be.”
Staley’s biggest concern might be replacing Bone. She controlled the middle last year, averaging 14 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and the Gamecocks are left with no player taller than 6-1. Senior Jewel May, junior Charenee Stephens and sophomore Ashley Bruner will get the bulk of the minutes playing the interior.
“We are who we are,” Staley said. “We’re small, but we’re going to pack a pretty strong punch. People are going to have to change how they play us. Of course, we are going to have to change how we play some people, too. It should be fun.”
The result could be an offense that attacks more and relies less on set plays. The guard-orientated team has depth in the backcourt, with senior Samone Kennedy, juniors Ebony Wilson and Courtney Newton and sophomore Ieasia Walker vying for minutes until Nainima recovers.
There is no timetable for Nainima’s return, but she expects to contribute at some point this season.
“She is trying to get back this year,” Staley said. “That’s all I know. If anybody can get back, it’s Val.”
La'Keisha Sutton and Marah Strickland