Staley: Team has to learn to relax more
It’s exam week at the University of South Carolina, meaning a break in basketball and a chance to take an early assessment of Dawn Staley’s team, roughly a quarter of the way into the season.
At 5-4, the Gamecocks are off to their worst start since the 2010-2011 season, but the program’s streak of 121 consecutive weeks in The Associated Press poll is still intact, with USC most recently checking in at No. 25. The team’s four losses came against three top-10 teams and Drake, who was ranked in the top 25 until falling out this week.
USC’s major stats through nine games are included below, as well as the team’s rank among 349 NCAA teams. The statistics from the start of the 2017-2018 season and the entirety of last year are included for reference.
The biggest difference between this season and last is obvious — A’ja Wilson. The No. 1 WNBA draft pick left an enormous hole to fill, not only as the team’s emotional leader and public face, but in her production on the court. She averaged 22.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game as a senior, shooting free throws 7.7 times per contest. Her usage rate was seventh highest in the country, per Her Hoop Stats.
So who’s helped to pick up that slack, who’s regressed or failed to impress, and who’s mostly stood pat?
Te’a Cooper came to South Carolina as a former top-15 recruit and SEC All-Freshman team member. And after missing a year due to injury and then another year to NCAA transfer rules, Cooper’s return to competitive basketball has mostly gone off without a hitch.
Leading the team with 14 points per game and second in assists and steals, Cooper hasn’t been the most efficient player, shooting under 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3 while averaging under a point per play. But her aggressiveness with the ball and run-and-gun mentality have meshed well with Staley’s offensive vision. She leads the team in free throw attempts and has a higher free throw rate now than Wilson did all of last year, meaning she finds ways to get to the line.
Cooper also leads the team in usage rate, and while it’s still a far cry from how much Wilson dominated the ball last year, it’s an indication that she’s stepped into the leading role of this offense.
Another talented newcomer, freshman forward Victaria Saxton, has contributed to one area where South Carolina likely didn’t expect to improve on once Wilson left — blocking. The Gamecocks are blocking an average of 7.2 shots per game, compared with 6.2 per contest last year, and rank third in the country.
Saxton is still raw and needs work on the offensive end, but she’s blocked 12 shots in eight appearances. That’s second on the team behind junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who has 17 swats. However, Staley has said she thinks many of Herbert Harrigan’s blocks come after she’s been beat off the dribble and in recovery. She wants her post player to get better at denying those looks in the first place.
Lastly, sophomore forward Lele Grissett has posted improvements across the board in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage, while cutting down on her turnovers and personal fouls.
Bianca Jackson was a pleasant surprise for USC as a rookie, shooting 39.4 percent from 3 and playing the third-most minutes of any Gamecock freshman ever. Her sophomore campaign, however, is off to a disappointing start, as her 3-point percentage has dipped to 29.6, including a current 1-for-11 stretch. Her minutes, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage are all down as well.
It’s too early to deem Jackson’s start a full-fledged sophomore slump, but with the influx of talented and capable guards around her, it might be hard for Jackson to get enough playing time to work through whatever issues she’s struggling with.
In a similar bind, freshman Destanni Henderson may simply get buried on the bench this year despite coming to Columbia as the highest-rated recruit since A’ja Wilson. She’s shooting 42.9 percent from 3 but is just 2-for-20 on 2-point attempts. After scoring 13 points in her debut against Alabama State, she’s been averaging less than three points per game on under 20 percent shooting.
Once again, Henderson is a freshman and will have plenty of time to develop. But there was some hope she would come in and make an impact right away, and that hasn’t happened yet.
The majority of South Carolina’s returning players are putting up similar numbers to what they did last season — junior guard Tyasha Harris’s assists are down, but her scoring has increased slightly. Redshirt senior guard Doniyah Cliney has been more efficient scoring but in a reduced role, meaning her numbers have dipped slightly. And redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings has been slowed by an early injury but is rounding back into form.
The play of redshirt senior guards Nelly Perry and Bianca Cuevas-Moore hasn’t been outstanding, but both have flashed playmaking ability. When Cuevas-Moore gets hot, as she did against Appalachian State, she can produce bundles of points even in limited minutes. And Perry has shown herself to be a steady, reliable scoring option in tense situations, such as the team’s win over Dayton.
Staley and the Gamecocks will need more of both — they’ve already dropped two close, winnable games and are set to travel to Purdue for their next game this upcoming Sunday. The Boilermakers have already knocked off one ranked team this season in Miami.