In summer workouts for South Carolina women’s basketball so far, there’s been an unstoppable force in the low post, a bully the Gamecocks’ young forwards can’t handle.
Alexis Jennings stands 6-foot-3 with a powerfully built lower body, and with no more A’ja Wilson, there’s not a USC player left who can bang down low with the fifth-year senior.
“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,” coach Dawn Staley said in June. “But her brute strength is hard for any of our younger post players to guard at this point.”
It’s up to Molly Binetti to level the playing field, at least a little.
Binetti is Carolina’s new sports performance coach, taking over in early June for the departed Katie Fowler, and it’s her job to help the pair of freshman forwards Staley added in her latest recruiting class — Victaria Saxton and Elysa Wesolek — develop the strength necessary to hold their own against Jennings and all the other dominant bigs in the SEC.
That starts, she said, with understanding that no matter what, most seniors will have an edge over the rookies in the strength department, at least for now.
“For me, it’s a slow-cooking process from Year One to Year Four. I’m not trying to get these kids in the door Day One and lift as much weight as possible. It’s very much, figure out what they need individually and then go from there,” Binetti said.
“We’re fortunate in the women’s game that I have these girls for four years, three years minimum if they go to the draft early. It’s different from men in that I have them for an extended period of time. So I think of it as a long-term development process. When our kids come in as freshmen, they train separately from our team. Our freshmen right now, they’re in a separate group because they need to learn the foundations of how to move well.”
That means lots of reps and less focus on intense, explosive workouts. Right now, Binetti, Saxton and Wesolek agree, they’re working on the strength to absorb lots of contact down low and still work hard.
“People in the SEC, they’re strong, they’re built. You just gotta constantly build your muscle,” Wesolek said.
A big part of being able to take physical punishment, Binetti said, is a subject not often openly discussed in women’s sports — weight. While the WNBA’s website lists players’ weights, most college programs do not, and broaching the topic can sometimes be awkward given societal expectations.
But for Binetti, it’s solely an issue of performance, and Saxton is comfortable explaining her goals in that regard — she needs to bulk up to have a chance under the rim against players like Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan, who stands 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds.
“I came in, and I was like 169 (pounds) when I came in, and now I’m at 176, trying to get to 180 by the end of this summer,” Saxton said.
“With Victaria, it’s easy,” Binetti said. “She’s understanding that she’s making this jump to the next level as a post player, and her strength isn’t where it needs to be. She knows the type of player and the type of athlete she’s going to be going up against, especially in conference play. She understands the competition is going to be a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. So when you come at from a performance standpoint, I never look at weight as just a number in itself. It always has to do with a performance aspect.”
Collaboration is key to Binetti’s programs for all of the Gamecocks, not just the freshmen. She said she wants the players to take ownership of their fitness in hopes that it will benefit them down the road if they decide to pursue professional careers.
“Understanding the why behind everything we do, it’s a constant education, it’s a constant, ‘Hey, this is what I see.’ I always try to ask them and involve them in the process as well about how they’re feeling, what they feel they need to improve upon, and then I take that information, based with my evaluations, and we form a plan together,” Binetti said.
Of course, size alone won’t determine every matchup, and both Wesolek and Saxton have made it clear they plan to scrap and claw for every advantage they can get.
“I think it’s fun playing against people that are bigger than me, because I’m really an underdog for how tall I am and how small. I think it’s really fun going against the bigger people and seeing if I can outwork them,” Saxton said.