David Cloninger

Staley’s Gamecocks prepare for another six-game season

It wasn’t that long ago that South Carolina was hoping just to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

But once the Gamecocks did, and once they became a perennial Top-5 team, the joy of making the tournament was lost in the expectations of what USC should do when it gets there.

It’s always the price of success, and what coach Dawn Staley has done with her program is a massive success. They’ve ruled the SEC for four consecutive seasons, coming off the mat this year when many figured they’d been knocked down to second place, and the number of overall losses they’ve had over the past three years can be counted on two hands, with room to spare.

One loses sight of how hard it is to stay on top because USC has made it look so easy, winning game after game and often blowing out opponents. It’s why keyboards lit up when the Gamecocks lost to Connecticut this year, never mind that UConn is THE program in the sport and doesn’t make a habit of losing.

Why the indignation?

Because when a team wins all the time, the times it didn’t win are forgotten. It’s a new experience and not a pleasant one.

Staley’s Gamecocks are in a terrific place and stand to be that way for years to come. As good as they are, they keep finding ways to make themselves better – by adding high-profile transfers or top recruits or, as we recently found out, about to have another spotlight shined on it by having the Olympic basketball coach as their head coach.

So now, as they begin another journey as one of the country’s top teams, a spot they earned, they know that none of what they’ve done in 31 games matters. It’s all about the next six – and rest assured, the expectation is that they play another six.

As difficult as it’s been to keep winning SEC titles, USC has done it, which has given the program’s followers a sense of invincibility. Reservations were made in Dallas, site of this year’s Final Four, months ago because anything less than a Final Four will be a disappointment.

Unfair, but reality. When the Gamecocks were beaten by Syracuse in last year’s Sweet 16, they lost to a team they had more talent than, but a team that was on a hot streak that didn’t end until the national championship game. Upsets happen in the NCAA Tournament every year, but a team that rolled through the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament without a loss, not to mention all but that darned UConn throughout the season, was not supposed to lose right then.

Indianapolis was where USC was supposed to be and instead the Gamecocks finished in South Dakota. All USC accomplished last year was overlooked because of the stink of the final game.

This year’s team hasn’t been as dominant, hasn’t been as struggle-free. The Gamecocks have had to adjust several factors of their team throughout the year but, like last year’s final game, all of it was forgotten because USC still finished first.

The Gamecocks are SEC champions and a No. 1 seed, but are facing significant challenges. One, the time when they could sneak up on someone is long past. Two, the ankle of All-SEC center Alaina Coates is an ongoing concern. Three, it will have to advance to the Final Four from a site far away from home.

Four, the pressure of not being satisfied with anything but a Final Four berth may drift from stands to locker room.

Unfair?

Reality.

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