Over the past five years or so, one of the hallmarks of South Carolina women’s basketball has been the post play.
With the likes of A’ja Wilson, Alaina Coates, Elem Ibiam and others, coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks have always had multiple forwards who could settle deep in the block and dominate smaller squads.
This year, that might change, at least a little.
After USC’s first official practice of the 2018-2019 season, Staley acknowledged with Wilson now graduated and in the pro ranks, there’s really only one player who fits the mold of a “5” who plays either under or with her back to the basket — senior Alexis Jennings.
And with those players, Staley is looking to implement a style of play she used often this past month in her run as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team that won gold at the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife, Spain — positionless basketball.
“We are working towards positionless basketball where we work in concepts, pro concepts obviously,” Staley said. “This team, they’re energized. They’re probably playing above where I thought they’d play. It’s a good thing on both sides of the ball.”
It’s a trend that’s been sweeping basketball for a while now, Staley noted, as guards become longer and taller and forwards become more and more capable of shooting from long range and running the floor. It’s even one USC might see its opponents utilize this year.
“If you look at what we had to do over at Spain, it was a lot of times positionless basketball where we had to play people out of position because of how we needed to match up with other teams, and it takes some time for other teams to adjust to it,” Staley explained. “So hopefully we’ll be able to utilize our skill set in that we’ll be moving our post players around.”
Positionless basketball and pro-style schemes and concepts only will work, however, if South Carolina can develop as a unit rapidly, a process Staley said has been helped along by an NCAA rule change allowing more practice time over the summer.
“They’re in pretty good shape. We were able to get through a three-hour practice, and there were really no lulls and that’s a lot different than previous years. They’re locked in,” Staley said.
LIFE WITHOUT A’JA
For fans and observers of the program, Thursday marked the first time South Carolina has been without A’ja Wilson in more than four years. For the team, however, the extra summer practice meant that Wilson’s absence has long since ceased to be unusual.
“We got a rude awakening this summer, so we got a feel for what that looks like,” Staley said. “It’s not so bad right now because you got players who step up. A’ja did all she could do on the collegiate level and she needed to spread her wings and fly. Here, some of the players need to open up their wings and see if they can fly.
“They’re hungry to be successful and to do it obviously without A’ja. I know A’ja was a big part of (this program) but she’s no longer here, so I think they want to make their mark doing their journey.”
One of those players is junior guard Tyasha Harris, who often referred to Wilson last year as her “twin.” Now that Wilson is gone, however, Harris anticipates South Carolina adopting a faster tempo, and she’s all for it.
“I think it’s gonna be a lot different. I think it’s gonna be good different though. Everybody has something to contribute to the team and we’re going to be a fast-beat, up-tempo team, so I like it,” Harris said. “We have seven guards and we compete day in and day out.”
Emotionally, Harris will also be looked upon to replace Wilson — she was a captain last season as a sophomore, and despite the Gamecocks having four seniors for 2018-2019, she anticipates a similar role.
“I was a leader my sophomore year and being behind A’ja, she taught me a lot. And now that I’m taking on the role as the head leader and hopefully a captain, I’m very comfortable with it. And I’m just trying to teach everything A’ja taught me,” Harris said.
Jennings is day-to-day with an unspecified injury. Senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore is still recovering from the knee injury that ended her season last year, but she is close to healthy, Staley said. Freshman forward Victaria Saxton came up limping toward the end of practice Thursday and had to be helped off the court later.