South Carolina women’s basketball is set to open the 2018-2019 season this Sunday on the road against Alabama State. Without national player of the year A’ja Wilson, the Gamecocks and coach Dawn Staley will have to forge a new identity, and quickly, as USC’s nonconference schedule is once again brutal.
Without Wilson, what can fans expect to see from the new-look Gamecocks? Here are some predictions.
THREE X-FACTOR PLAYERS
Junior guard Te’a Cooper: The Tennessee transfer has all the tools to be a dark horse All-American candidate, and certainly the confidence to go with it. When she’s on, she can carry the Gamecocks. The key will be making sure her off nights don’t sink the team.
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Junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan: Staley has not been shy about saying she thinks Herbert Harrigan could be an All-American by the time she leaves South Carolina, and she shined at points last postseason. But her emotions can sometimes get the best of her, and she’ll need to stay consistent to unlock her full potential.
Freshman guard Destanni Henderson: South Carolina has so many experienced guards, but this freshman seems good enough to force herself into the rotation anyway. She has lightning quickness, the ability to attack the basket and a solid shot. If she does play significant minutes, that will give Staley a staggering number of weapons in the backcourt.
FIVE BIGGEST GAMES
No. 9/10 Maryland on Nov. 18: The Terrapins are just ahead of South Carolina in the preseason polls, and after a tight early season matchup in College Park last year, this year’s game feels especially tough for a team that will still be establishing its identity.
No. 4/5 Baylor on Dec. 2: The Lady Bears may have the most talented roster in America, with 10 former 5-star recruits, and Kim Mulkey’s squad is a perennial Final Four contender, having not lost more than five games in eight years.
No. 16/14 Missouri on Jan. 21: Even if you put aside all the off-the-court drama that’s been building between these two programs for a year now, this would still be a crucial game considering the SEC standings and Missouri’s ability to play Carolina tough.
at No. 11/12 Tennessee on Feb. 24: The Lady Vols caught the Gamecocks twice last season without A’ja Wilson and punished them both times. Can the Gamecocks flip the script this year? Also, Te’a Cooper’s return to Knoxville should be fascinating to watch.
No. 6/6 Mississippi State on March 3: Obviously there’s no guarantee that the SEC regular season title will come down to this game on the final day of the season. But the schedule-makers probably thought it would, and for good reason. This is the early favorite for game of the year.
THREE STATS TO WATCH
Possessions per 40 minutes: Simply known as pace to some, possessions per 40 minutes is the easiest way to determine how fast a team is playing, and if the exhibition against Lander is any indication, South Carolina should rank among the nation’s fastest. In that game, USC had 88 possessions — the nation’s leaders usually average in the low to mid 80s.
Turnover rate: The danger in playing a fast pace is the possibility of losing control and turning the ball over frequently, and turnovers were an area of concern for the Gamecocks at the end of last regular season, as the team ended the year ranked 71st in the nation in turnover rate, or percentage of possessions that ended in a turnover, at 17 percent.
Blocks: A’ja Wilson’s offensive talent was transcendent, but her ability to block shots was perhaps just as great. She holds four of the top six places in the program record book for blocks in a season. With her, USC was among the nation’s leader in blocks per game and block rate. Without her, players like Alexis Jennings and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will be looked upon to step up their stuffing.
Tyasha Harris will lead the team in scoring: Staley has talked about getting Harris to be selfish and score more on her own for the past two years now, and this will be the season she does it. The Gamecocks have a lot of weapons, and while Harris won’t lead the team in scoring every night, she has the consistency and the ability to get to the rim to average around 14 or so points per game. Given how spread out the scoring should be on this team, that will lead USC.
LaDazhia Williams will take a huge step forward: A thin frontcourt will be led by senior Alexis Jennings, but the Gamecocks need options behind her, especially seeing as she was on the bench more than any other starter in 2017-2018. Freshman Victaria Saxton could step in and make a difference right away, but it’s Williams, a former five-star recruit who barely played last year in part due to injuries, who seems like she could make the biggest impact at the “5” position, grinding away down low.
The program record for 3-point attempts will be broken: In its exhibition against Lander, South Carolina was everything Staley promised it would be in the preseason — fast-paced, position-less and eager to take shots from beyond the arc. All told, the Gamecocks attempted 30 3s, making seven.
Obviously the Gamecocks won’t keep that rate up, but it seems likely that this will be Staley’s first South Carolina team to take more than 600 3-pointers in a season. The program record is 744, which means USC would have to average roughly 22 attempts per game to top that.
NCAA regional placement will continue to be an issue: Staley has made no secret of the fact that she has not been a fan of the regionals the NCAA tournament selection committee has placed South Carolina in the past few years, far away from home where not many fans have been able to travel and support the team. This season seems like it would be the year to change that, with a regional right up the road in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But the NCAA’s famously finicky process, combined with an uncertain seed, should give Gamecock fans pause before booking hotels just yet. It seems unlikely that USC will be a No. 1 seed, and things can get very muddled after those four teams.
Fewer than 10 losses? It’s been seven years since South Carolina ended the season with double-digit losses, and it should extend that streak in 2018-2019, but it will be close. The Gamecocks could have as many as 12 games against teams ranked in the AP preseason poll, including six against top-10 teams.
It’s not a stretch to imagine road losses to UConn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and perhaps even Duke. Add in tough home matchups with MSU again, Maryland and Baylor, along with the tough Vancouver Showcase, difficult SEC tournament and of course the NCAA tourney, and there’s little margin for error.