With four consecutive SEC tournament championships, a national title and a recent preseason poll ranking of second in the conference, “under the radar” may not be the phrase many associate with South Carolina women’s basketball.
But it’s one that came up time and time again at SEC media day on Thursday, as coach Dawn Staley and her players discussed their team, outside expectations and the massive hole left by program legend A’ja Wilson.
Wilson is the only starter missing from last year’s Elite Eight squad, but the loss of her transcendent talent, along with skillsets of returning players, means that Staley is overhauling much of her offensive system and trying things USC hasn’t done in years.
Meanwhile, rival Mississippi State lost four of its starting five, but the Bulldogs are the preseason favorite, thanks in large part to All-American center Teaira McCowan. And perennial power Tennessee loses two all-conference players but returns some depth and adds a talented freshman class.
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“Obviously when you bring back as someone as imposing as Teaira McCowan, they’re going to give you the nod,” Staley said. “Much like we brought back A’ja last year. ... Obviously it takes some thought into who would be the preseason media pick. We’re going to fly under the radar a little bit and figure out our identity and hopefully reside at the top at the end of the season.”
It is, as Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick put it, a new era in SEC basketball, and the early uncertainty means South Carolina is no longer the overwhelming favorite it has been for the past few years. And while every opposing coach still knows USC can be dangerous, this might be as under the radar a Staley-led team can get.
“I think people are unsure to put us any further (down) because you never know, and that’s a tribute to what our program has become and the work that we’ve put in and the success that we’ve had,” Staley said. “So maybe people aren’t going to be skeptical and drop us that far down. I wish they would, it would take a little bit of the pressure off some of our players. Whatever position we’re in, we gotta play. We’re not going to play differently if we’re No. 1. Maybe we’d play a little different if we were at the bottom. But this team is totally different, the identity is different, the leadership is different, but the challenge is always the same.”
Even within the program, expectations and perceptions of those expectations are varied — junior guard Tyasha Harris called it a “knock” that South Carolina was picked second behind MSU, while senior Alexis Jennings said it was “pretty positive.”
Harris said she understands why the loss of Wilson could create some doubt, but as a returning captain, she wants the team to take the preseason poll as a slight and a reason to play with an edge.
“I don’t think it’s a compliment, especially because we’re the only team to ever win four SEC championships in a row,” Harris said. “Yes, we did lose a great player. She’s a tremendous player and everybody knows that, but other teams lost players too ... We saw it and we’re just gonna move on from that and just continue to grow and keep the streak alive.”
Individually, Harris is also operating with slightly lowered expectations, missing the preseason all-conference team despite leading the SEC in assists per game and making the All-SEC second team last season.
“I was a little hurt, a little down about it, but my dad texted me, ‘Just use it as motivation, just use it as fire.’ I guess not being on it means now I can play under the radar, but also show that I can do it too, so it’s not going to be a lot of focus on me, and I’m just gonna explode. It was sad, but motivational,” Harris said.
That’s exactly what Staley, who said she was a “little surprised” by Harris’ omission, wants.
“I think sometimes people get a little South Carolina fatigue in that they lose sight of who’s been really there for us for the past two years. I hope Ty sees it and takes it as a challenge to get better, to get up to the first team,” Staley said.
Of course, flying under the radar doesn’t mean any change in Staley’s own expectations. Simply put, “nobody remembers second,” she said.