It’s the price and downfall of success. No matter how good you are, how wonderful a season you have, you’re remembered only for the end and not what you did before it.
Five years ago, South Carolina couldn’t fathom being a team that went 67-5 over a two-season span and being disappointed. The Gamecocks were just trying to get to the NCAA tournament, and once they did, the season was a success no matter how it ended.
Now, of course, the NCAA Tournament is merely one goal in a long list of expectations. That’s where a program morphs from being good to great – when an ending without a trophy is always judged as a disappointment.
It’s not fair to characterize USC’s 2015-16 season as a disappointment. It’s not disappointing to lose two games out of 35. It’s not disappointing to tie standards set by a basketball blue-blood as the Gamecocks didn’t lose an SEC game in 19 tries. It’s not disappointing when USC had one of its players voted the best in the league and an All-American for the third straight year and its coach picked as the SEC’s best.
But as everyone’s parent once told them, “Life is not fair.”
USC’s season ending in the Sweet 16 to Syracuse was a disappointment, because the Gamecocks didn’t achieve their goal of getting back to the Final Four and taking those last two steps. It’s a disappointment because USC, after answering every bell in the SEC and beating 13 ranked teams this season, was undone by a team that forced it into playing its way, when the Gamecocks had done that to their opponents all year. It’s a disappointment because USC wasn’t defeated by a half-court buzzer-beater or one player having a can’t-miss night; it was beaten because USC didn’t have the leadership to handle a challenge.
Combine all of it, and it was an outstanding season with a crushing end. Because the Gamecocks lost to a team they should’ve beaten – and blew a double-digit lead with 14 minutes to go. Because a team that had won 33 of 34 games before Friday on a dictated system ignored that system when it really had to employ it.
So this year will be defined as a disappointment. It’s in the books and nothing will change it.
The only thing to do is get back to this point next year, and get beyond it.
“This is the life of college athletics,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s a cycle. You got to get the next group ready to duplicate some of the things that this senior class has done for our program.”
USC loses three-year starters Tiffany Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions. Fifth-year senior Tina Roy, as important to the team’s chemistry as she was to its 3-point game, also leaves. Sarah Imovbioh had a fine year in her only season after transferring from Virginia.
It’s a lot of starts, points and knowledge that’s lost. Roy and the other three lifers were around for most of the building, progressing from losing a round of 32 game to Kansas to reaching the Final Four. Mitchell, a pure winner like Aleighsa Welch before her, will likely never have a player beyond her who could truly replace all she brought to the team.
But at least on paper, the Gamecocks have answers. Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis each transferred after starring for their previous schools, sitting out this year but able to practice and learn Staley’s system. While Staley never promises starting roles, Gray and Davis weren’t brought to USC to ride the bench. They could feasibly slide into the holes left by Mitchell and Dozier.
With A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates around to anchor the block, the bulk of USC’s offense returns. Jatarie White, if she can stay healthy, can aid that and Staley has a pledge from 6-foot-2 top-75 forward Mikiah “KiKi” Harrigan.
The question is point guard. Bianca Cuevas has had some dazzling moments in her first two years, but it’s a question if she’d be able to handle being the starter and playing for 25-30 minutes per game. While Tiffany Davis would be steady and Staley signed Araion Bradshaw, would that be enough to handle the most crucial spot on the floor?
“We got a point guard that’s deciding, hopefully, in the next few weeks if she wants to join our family and hopefully she’ll see where she’s needed,” Staley said. She also has a commitment from two-guard Victoria Patrick.
Staley has made sure the program will be successful, replacing her lost stars with future stars. The program was never going to be dependent on one class of seniors; it was built to repeat success with the next class of great players.
Yes, they’ll lose a lot with a group that had been through so much and won so many big games. But Staley’s thought, even after the shocking loss, was that the Gamecocks know what they’ll need, mentally and talent-wise, when – not if – they get back here.
“We’re returning the same posts, same post duo, along with Jatarie, and we’ve added another post player, so we’re going to be OK,” Staley said. “The future’s bright for our program. We just got to get better in certain areas.”
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