Dawn Staley talks about South Carolina’s freshmen for first time
During its 2017 national title run, South Carolina women's basketball ran a four-guard lineup out of necessity, centered around star forward A'ja Wilson.
And now, after a season in which injuries and personnel forced the Gamecocks to routinely use three bigs on the floor at once, they might return to a small ball lineup in 2018-2019 — just without Wilson.
That was the message of coach Dawn Staley on Tuesday as she spoke to reporters for the first time since Wilson graduated from USC and left to play pro ball. Barring injury or a drastic turn of events, the 2018-2019 version of the Gamecocks will have more guards than they know what to do with, even as they have a massive hole to fill in the frontcourt.
"With the guards that we have, we have a lot of options. We can go traditional with three guards, two post players, or we can go small with four guards. I'm just excited because all of them are a lot different than each other. They're highly competitive, and they've improved," Staley said.
Junior Tyasha Harris, sophomore Bianca Jackson and senior Doniyah Cliney all started at guard for USC last season, and they will be joined by redshirt junior Te'a Cooper, who sat out as a transfer, redshirt senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore, who sat out because of injury, graduate transfer Nelly Perry, from Clemson, and freshman Destanni Henderson, the nation's top-ranked point guard in her class.
Oh, and Staley also said Tuesday that sophomore Lele Grissett, who came in last season as a forward and spent most of the year in that role, will shift to the wing moving forward.
"That's just another big guard that we have and will utilize in a way that we did last year," Staley said. "She has a lot of experience under her belt. I think she finally started to get at the end of the season where she needed to be and where she could make an impact, so we'll continue with her improvement."
That's eight total wing and backcourt players, including six with starting experience. In Staley's mind, that's a good problem to have.
"If you look at last season, it was a blessing in disguise, because players got a lot of experience that they would not have gotten, so it puts us ahead of the game this year," she said, while also adding that Henderson is "college ready" and urging people to not forget Perry.
"She will definitely be a great addition to our team," Staley said.
Staley didn't drop any hints as to who her starting five might be come October, but she did say that Cooper, who hasn't played since the spring of 2016 because of injury and transfer rules, is ahead of schedule at summer workouts.
"Anytime a young person has to sit out for reasons beyond her control, beyond our control, it's heartbreaking, but now that the handcuffs are off of her, she sees the season right in front of her, she's approaching it in the way that she's in midseason form," Staley said. "From a strength and conditioning standpoint, she's ready to rock and roll. If we started today, she would be the only one that could play a 29-game schedule and not feel it."
No matter how many guards the Gamecocks have, the question looming over the upcoming season for USC is simple: What will the team do without A'ja Wilson?
Wilson was the only major contributor from last year's Elite Eight squad to depart, but she accounted for roughly a quarter of the team's points, rebounds and blocks while sweeping national player of the year honors, and her impact was especially notable whenever she missed a game or spent time on the bench.
Staley announced positive news on that front Tuesday, confirming that redshirt senior Alexis Jennings will returnfor a fifth year after some doubt as to whether she would. Jennings was the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder in 2017-2018, and Staley said she has been overpowering the team's other post players in workouts.
"I don't think we have anyone that really can defend her this summer. Obviously, we've got to get some of our practice guys in here to challenge her a little bit," Staley said. "But her brute strength is hard for any of our younger post players to guard at this point. But we're working with Alexis to make sure she can counter her low post presence with being able to hit a midrange jumpshot and out to 3."
Besides Jennings, Staley confirmed that junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who came on strong to end last season, will probably see a "lot more playing time" in the fall and has improved her conditioning.
ANNOUNCEMENTS TO COME
South Carolina's nonconference schedule remains unsettled for now, as Staley said paperwork still needs to be finalized before the team can announced it. While games with Maryland, Purdue and Baylor have been announced, no dates have been assigned, but Staley did say the Baylor contest, which will likely be a clash between two highly ranked teams, is part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
Staley also confirmed USC is still looking to add another player to its roster, saying she had "a couple of irons in the fire" in regard to potential transfers. The most prized transfer left on the market is Texas A&M forward Anriel Howard, and the Gamecocks are finalists for her services.