David Cloninger

South Carolina will be as talented as ever in 2016-17

From left: Alaina Coates, Bianca Cuevas, A’ja Wilson, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray
From left: Alaina Coates, Bianca Cuevas, A’ja Wilson, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray

South Carolina fans still bitter about the way last season ended shouldn’t worry – there most likely won’t be a game next year where the Gamecocks shoot 32 3-pointers.

There may be several games where they don’t shoot 10.

With the departure of Tina Roy and Asia Dozier, players who if they shot were going to shoot from long range, USC is re-tooling its offense for 2016-17. Losing a steady three-year point guard in Khadijah Sessions hurts, and losing a player in Tiffany Mitchell who could shoot from all over the floor, defend and hit the clutch shot hurts more.

But the Gamecocks have no plans to abdicate a throne built on three straight SEC regular-season championships and a sterling 45-3 three-year conference record. They’ll just look a little different.

The offense will still be tailored around the bigs, as it should be. The Gamecocks return A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, each a first-team All-SEC performer and a player in Wilson who is poised to become the face of women’s basketball. They want the ball, they need the ball for the Gamecocks to be consistent – and at 6-foot-4 and 6-5, it doesn’t make much sense to not give them the ball.

Where they’ll be different is in who gets it to them, and who can help them out. That’s where USC turns to the two weapons it’s had to shelve for the past year.

ACC transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis finally have their transfer shackles removed. Each was an All-ACC performer, each has already logged over 1,000 career points and each can score in a variety of ways.

Gray is used to working with McDonald’s All-Americans, coming from two years at North Carolina where she played with Diamond DeShields, Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel. She led the Tar Heels in scoring in 2014-15 and can play each guard position.

Davis is a player that can fill Mitchell’s role. Able to slash as well as she can launch from inside the arc, she’s used to shooting a lot. As a freshman at Georgia Tech, she averaged 16 attempts per game; as a sophomore it rose to nearly 19. The Gamecocks will depend on Coates and Wilson inside – but they can’t have it every possession, which is where Davis and Gray will be counted on.

Questions loom in how Davis will be able to fit into an offense that has made it clear that others get the ball first, but that was expressed to her before she transferred. She wouldn’t have come if she didn’t feel she could work within the system. As for 3-pointers, Davis shot 246 as a freshman and 285 as a sophomore with varying success (34.6 percent cratered to 28.9) but coach Dawn Staley will tell her, and everyone, that 3-pointers are not to be shot unless the ball touches paint first. After the Syracuse game, that motto may be stitched onto each jersey.

That leaves the biggest question – who leads the attack? For three years, Sessions was driving, dishing, stealing and directing. The hardest position has candidates, but no definite replacement.

Bianca Cuevas will most likely start the first game at point guard, because she’s been here the longest. After that, there’s no telling. Cuevas’ greatest strength and weakness is her speed – with the ball in her hand in the open floor, there’s not many that can catch her. The problem is when she faces pressure bringing the ball up, she tries to run past it, which leads to no-look passes and turnovers.

With a potential starting four of Wilson, Coates, Gray and Davis, the Gamecocks will display a future pro roster on the floor. All their gifts are negated without anyone to get them the ball. If Cuevas can prove she can play 25-30 minutes per game under control, she’ll stick. If not, Staley will start experimenting.

It’s not ideal to rotate at point guard, since all have their own style and Staley doesn’t want to teach specific sets for specific groups. If Cuevas steps in on Day 1 and can be the clear starter while the others rotate for rest – Staley will continue to play her bench, as she always has – fine. If not, the Gamecocks will have a lot of learning on the fly.

Five-star freshman Tyasha Harris was brought in to shore up the point, but will she be capable of playing 20 minutes right away? Ditto for Araion Bradshaw, the No. 32 national recruit (Harris was 27). Veteran Tiffany Davis can play some minutes at the point if she can stay healthy but if any of the three are depended on for the majority of games, there could be some tight moments against an unforgiving schedule (first opponent Ohio State has a jaw-dropping assemblage of talent, and it’s on the road).

But the Gamecocks didn’t get here by not being able to handle tight moments. Ever since they broke through five years ago, they never intended for the program to be a one-hit wonder.

They’re here now. Despite the disappointment of last year’s final game, USC ended 33-2. The talent on hand is able to keep it at that level.

The Gamecocks aren’t going anywhere.

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USC WOMEN’S BASKETBALL 2016-17

G Araion Bradshaw, Fr.

Top-35 recruit who will battle for minutes at the point

G Doniyah Cliney, RSo.

Injury-packed second year could lead to breakthrough in Year 3

C Alaina Coates, Sr.

When she wants to take over, there’s nothing anybody can do

G Bianca Cuevas, Jr.

SEC speed re-defined, but can she harness it and be the starting PG?

G Kaela Davis, Jr.

A pure shooter, Davis can supply the outside in USC’s in-out attack

G Tiffany Davis, RJr.

Oft-injured guard can play multiple positions

F India Farmer, Sr.

Coates and Wilson can’t play all game, every game

G Allisha Gray, Jr.

UNC transfer is a creative scorer and could play some at the point

G Tyasha Harris, Fr.

Highest-rated of the recruiting class, she’s the PG of the future

F Mikiah Harrigan, Fr.

With the Gamecocks limited in post depth, she has the chance to blossom

G Victoria Patrick, Fr.

Combo guard who could benefit if USC goes five-guard

F A’ja Wilson, Jr.

The superstar, Wilson could be the game’s most recognizable face

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