Mostly, it was strange.
Strange to not see Ieasia Walker or Ashley Bruner. Strange to not see so many pieces of a program that had fought and battled to respectability and then earned it.
South Carolina is not bare because those players, the ones who built it, are gone. Far from it. The Gamecocks should be in the Top 20 when the preseason rankings are released and considered at least a top-six pick in the SEC. A third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance is not only expected, but likely.
But coach Dawn Staley, in her sixth year, knows that nobody will hand her team the postseason.
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“We’ve got a lot to work on, for sure,” Staley said Tuesday. “But, definitely, it’s a team that works extremely hard. They’re driven.”
The Gamecocks began practice with a lot of expectations, and a unique situation. USC is a young team by class standing — only Wilka Montout is a senior, and two of the team’s four juniors are first-year players after transferring from other schools. But the experience of the returnees more than makes up for any “young” tag.
Because of injuries and a small roster last year, the Gamecocks mostly relied on nine players. All played and all played well, which gave them the experience they needed when the three seniors — Walker, Bruner and Sancheon White — graduated.
USC welcomes back Aleighsa Welch, now a junior and the unquestioned leader of the team, and sophomore Tiffany Mitchell, who averaged 9.2 points per game while starting nearly every game as a freshman. With Khadijah Sessions ready to take over at point guard, top JUCO transfer Olivia Gaines here and the local input of high-star recruit Alaina Coates, the Gamecocks seem poised to keep on keeping on.
It’s not that simple, of course. USC often struggled to score last year, getting locked into slumps during many of its eight losses where it couldn’t throw a layup into the ocean. The Gamecocks won because of their defense, a unit that has ranked among the national top five in each of the past two years.
The defense took a hit by losing Bruner from the post and Walker, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. While offense seems to have received an immediate injection, the newcomers haven’t yet done it in a game.
A lot to work on. But that’s a good thing.
“We’re still a work in progress,” said Mitchell, a lifelong devotee of Staley as a player who saw her dream come true by signing to play for her.
Staley stressed that the Gamecocks have to put in their defense, getting the youngsters up to snuff, and then will tinker with the offense.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time on our offense,” she said. “We’re going to do some new offenses that will free our players up to kind of take advantage of some things we feel our players have improved on. We’re going to open the floor up a bit.”
That could come with a new wrinkle of being able to play big. The Gamecocks under Staley have been a guard-based program, but with Coates, Welch and Elem Ibiam, USC has the option to play with a three-guard set or go with three bigs across the lane. Sessions can be a deadly scorer, but Staley will doubtless try to get her to direct traffic before scoring to open opportunities for Welch.
“I need to be able to step out and play the three,” Welch said. “Being able to hit the open shot or bring the ball up, whatever it is they need from me.”
Staley couldn’t classify her team as a replica of the past two, which built USC into one of the best teams in the country. Those teams were built on the backs of players who suffered for periods before feeling the warm glow of success. Much of the current team has only seen the great success. Staley knows that that could be a hurdle, since the intensity to win may not be as great as in some of the scrappers that she’s had in the past.
“It’s a team in which it’s probably very unpredictable,” Staley said, “until we figure out how we’re going to play.”