David Cloninger

Can USC women take next step into title game?

South Caroilna’s Alaina Coates will be a junior in the 2015-16 season.
South Caroilna’s Alaina Coates will be a junior in the 2015-16 season. dmclemore@thestate.com

The South Carolina women finished the finest season in program history with an appearance in the Final Four. While it stung to get so close to the national championship and fall one point short of playing for it, the Gamecocks return most of what got them there.

Here are five questions facing the Gamecocks as they prepare for 2015-16, Dawn Staley’s eighth year:

1. WHO’S HERE?

The question has been asked numerous times – why hasn’t Staley signed another top recruiting class? Because she doesn’t have to. She returns so much talent that has veteran experience that a top recruit isn’t going to want to come in and sit on the bench behind that talent. While Connecticut or Notre Dame may pull that off and have top recruits sit for a year or two, USC is not at that point – those schools are almost guaranteed to play for a national title (and in UConn’s case, win it). The Gamecocks remain relatively new to the elite scene.

The Gamecocks have signed Canadian guard Shay Colley, one of the top players in that country, and they will add a junior-college or transfer post player during the spring period. That most likely will be it for the signing class.

Staley had the deepest bench of her tenure this past season and has generally liked to keep her team one or two scholarships under the limit (15). Keep in mind, three players this past season – Doniyah Cliney, Kaydra Duckett and Jatarie White, the No. 7 overall player in the country as a prep senior – basically didn’t play. She’ll have those ready to add to a formidable mix.

No one can replace the leadership and tenacity of Aleighsa Welch, but Tiffany Mitchell will combine talent with an increased team mouthpiece role as a senior. Alaina Coates steps into Elem Ibiam’s center spot, while A’ja Wilson could play in Welch’s power forward location or play as a hybrid guard, which could give the Gamecocks a four-guard (and center) lineup.

The bench will be as strong as ever. Now it has Final Four experience.

2. WHO WILL THEY PLAY?

Staley played two elite teams on the road last year to get the payoff this year. UConn will visit Columbia at an undetermined date (probably in January-February, to give it a primetime TV matchup) and Duke also will visit the Capital City. The Gamecocks will play at Clemson (in Jervey Athletic Center with Littlejohn Coliseum undergoing renovations, so be prepared to squeeze in) and will play in an as-yet-unknown tournament.

The schedule after that is a work in progress. Staley has discovered that it’s hard to get a lot of good teams to visit, and schedules are often fluid until a month before the season starts.

The SEC will be as rugged as ever, and USC is guaranteed to play a home-and-home with Kentucky. The SEC tournament will be from March 2-6 in Jacksonville, Fla.

3. CAN THEY KEEP IMPROVING?

The good thing about USC losing at Kentucky last year to finish 15-1 in the SEC was it gave Staley a chance to keep the streak alive – in each of her seven years at USC, she has improved her league win total. It is going to be hard to go 16-0 in the SEC, but the Gamecocks have the talent to do it.

Staley also has at least matched her previous overall win total in every year, the back-to-back 25-win seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13 preventing her from saying the same as her SEC total but still an outstanding accomplishment. Again, it is going to be tough to top 34 wins. Now that the Gamecocks have gotten a taste of the Final Four, they know what it takes to survive it.

4. THREE-PEAT?

Half the SEC made the NCAA tournament, and two teams made the WNIT. Among those were a surprising Arkansas team, which first-year coach Jimmy Dykes guided to the NCAAs despite having a nine-woman roster, and Ole Miss, which Matt Insell led to a WNIT quarterfinal.

The SEC will be even better. LSU was one of the best teams in the country the second half of the year with the return of Danielle Ballard. One has to figure Vanderbilt and Florida won’t have two lousy seasons in a row, and if Joni Crenshaw can make an immediate impact with Georgia, the Lady Bulldogs could be back where they’re used to being.

The standbys – Texas A&M, Kentucky – again will be good and Mississippi State signed a 6-foot-7, five-star prospect to replace Martha Alwal and complement Victoria Vivians. That leads to Tennessee, which is always good, but will be formidable next year. Diamond DeShields, known around Columbia as the USC killer, will be eligible.

If the Gamecocks can win their third straight SEC championship, they’ll surely earn it.

5. ARE THEY HERE TO STAY?

No question. Last season wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan miracle run. The Gamecocks built through seven years to get here, and they have no plans of leaving. The talent on this year’s team will rival any in the country. With a lengthy home winning streak, massive fan support and the reputation that little ol’ South Carolina suddenly is a beast, the Gamecocks should again enter the season ranked in the top five (if not the top two).

That does bring the question of next year’s recruiting. Staley must replace Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Tina Roy and Asia Dozier and have somebody lined up to replace Coates after the next season.

Staley has obviously mastered the recruiting trail, and the team’s success has opened a lot of talented eyes to what she and USC are doing. While it may not be stocked with as much local flavor, don’t be surprised when Staley reels in more top-25 players for the 2016-17 season.

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Five who could get the USC women back into the Final Four:

1.

TIFFANY

MITCHELL

Two-time SEC player of the year takes over leadership role from Aleighsa Welch.

2.

A’JA

WILSON

Super sub as a freshman, she could start as power forward or a hybrid guard.

3.

ALAINA

COATES

A sub this past season, she will step into Elem Ibiam’s starting center spot.

4.

JATARIE

WHITE

The prep No. 7 player in the country was injury-plagued during freshman season.

5.

DONIYAH

CLINEY

Guard sat out freshman season, but highly ranked coming out of high school.

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