A week after the men, South Carolina women’s basketball will play its lone exhibition of the preseason on Friday, hosting Division II Lander at 7 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena.
A surprise defeat seems even more unlikely than it did for Frank Martin’s squad, and not just because Dawn Staley’s team begins the year ranked No. 10 in the AP preseason poll. While Martin chose not to call timeouts late or sub in his best player who had four fouls, Staley said Thursday that her squad will approach the game as it would any regular season contest.
“The more in character we are, we give our players an idea of what we want it to look like and sound like and feel like,” Staley said of the experience. “We gotta practice it, and this is our only opportunity for us to do that.”
With that in mind, here are the five most important things to watch for Friday
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It’s the most basic of questions, but fans and observers still have no firm answer on who will make up Staley’s starting five against Lander — she declined to reveal the lineup Thursday.
And predicting who it might be is pure guesswork. Junior Tyasha Harris, senior Donyiah Cliney and sophomore Bianca Jackson all return as starting guards from last year, but junior Te’a Cooper, senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore, senior Nelly Perry and freshman Destanni Henderson have all been added to the mix, and you could make an argument for any combination.
In the frontcourt, senior Alexis Jennings will miss the exhibition while recovering “from some ailments,” Staley said, though she did participate in practice Thursday.. That leaves junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and four inexperienced underclassmen.
“We’ll go with the most experienced players for us, experienced meaning players that have minutes, a lot of minutes for us in the past, and then we’ll work everybody else in,” Staley said.
Chemistry and competition
Related to that point, Staley said the starting lineup could be fluid and change over the first few games until she finds a unit she likes.
“We got players that can start without a doubt, but we’re just trying to put a unit together that is cohesive, that plays well together, and it could be different combinations, but for right now we probably have seven, eight people that can start,” Staley said. “It’s just putting the best five out there to start a game.”
With more starting-quality players than spots, the question will be how the group, especially the guards, works together while also working for minutes. Cliney said Thursday that practices so far have been extremely competitive.
With a grad transfer, three freshmen and two players who were unable to compete in games last year, there may also be an adjustment period as the players get used to working with each other in game situations, something that you can simulate but never replicate in practice. At the very least, Staley said she wants to see the newcomers to simply work hard in tomorrow’s game.
When asked what the biggest hurdle facing South Carolina this season will be, Cliney had a very practical answer: rebounding.
At 6 feet tall, Cliney is acutely aware that she is one of the taller players with the experience that Staley wants, so she will likely be asked to pull down boards against much larger opponents.
“We’re kinda small, but especially for the guards, including myself, we gotta rebound extra, extra hard,” Cliney said. “We have to help out our post players. We’re not as big, so it’s going to be hard.”
Cliney is the tallest of the team’s guards and is only a few inches shorter than the team’s tallest player, the 6-foot-3 Jennings.
Especially without Jennings playing, Friday should mark the fans’ first glimpse at the up-tempo, fast-paced style Staley promised at SEC media day. If the Gamecocks put four guards on the floor at once, that speed should allow them to fly up and down the court.
Over the past five years, South Carolina has never ranked among the top 140 teams in the country in possessions per 40 minutes, a common indicator of pace, according to Her Hoop Stats. However, that stat has steadily trended upward, and this year will likely represent the biggest overhaul Staley has made to her offense in half a decade, so if ever there was a time to go fast, this is it.
“Everything’s really fast,” Cliney said. “(Staley) keeps on us, go fast, go fast, each and every rep. We definitely have that in the back of our minds, so we just gotta keep pushing. She says fast, we go faster.”
Speaking of overhauling the offense, Cuevas-Moore hasn’t played in a year and it’s not clear how much she’ll play Friday, if at all — Staley said she was only cleared for full practice a week and a half ago, and in her absence the system has changed, so she needs time to get back up to full speed.
“Some of the stuff we put in is a little bit different than what we played like, so she’s got to get up to speed with learning the plays,” Staley said.
Also, Cooper hasn’t played a competitive game of basketball in two years due to injury and her transfer from Tennessee. Perry missed all of last season with injury too. Staley sounded confident that both players won’t need much time to get re-acclimated to a game environment, but that’s always a situation worth monitoring.
Who: No. 10 South Carolina vs. Lander (exhibition)
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Free admission