USC Women's Basketball

5 key issues and storylines to watch for Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks in 2019

Dawn Staley says South Carolina must ‘simplify’ its game heading into SEC play

South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley explains her message to the Gamecocks after a win over scrappy Furman and ahead of USC's SEC opener against Texas A&M.
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South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley explains her message to the Gamecocks after a win over scrappy Furman and ahead of USC's SEC opener against Texas A&M.

South Carolina women’s basketball opens 2019 and SEC play on Thursday at Texas A&M. As Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks prepare for their 16-game conference schedule, here are 5 things USC fans should watch for.

Balancing depth

After Sunday’s win over Furman, Dawn Staley explained the main issue with her team’s defense is the result of almost too much depth.

“It’s a constant battle to get them to lock in and play, and it surely doesn’t help that we have to play 11, 12 players,” Staley said. “I’m a coach, that I’ll give you an opportunity to make a mistake or two. Three or four is when it’s costing you ... I gotta try to find the right combination and let them play through some stuff.”

Essentially, the Gamecocks have a lot of very solid guards, but very few head and shoulders above the rest. On the positive side for Staley, this means less fatigue as more players rotate into the game and others get rest. On the negative side, constant shuffling can disrupt a team’s rhythm, and it takes time to regain that.

As long as a group of players don’t naturally separate themselves from the pack and shorten Staley’s rotation for her, playing time will remain a constant, difficult balancing act.

Alexis Jennings

The preseason All-SEC selection is never going to be the next A’ja Wilson, but she is, or at least can be, one of the most dominant low post players in the conference. After the start of her season was slowed by some nagging injuries, she’s slowly been rounding into form, including four of her last five games in double digits scoring and a 19-point effort vs. Furman.

After that Furman game, Staley credited Jennings’ growing impact to her improved health, as well as her developing midrange game. And Jennings herself said she felt ready to play as many minutes as needed. All of these things will be tested in the grind of conference play, where twice weekly Jennings will have to battle against the SEC’s most physical players.

And unlike the surplus of guards mentioned above, the Gamecocks don’t have many forwards who seem SEC-ready — sophomore Lele Grissett and junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan are solid, but sophomore LaDazhia Williams and freshmen Victaria Saxton and Elysa Wesolek all have had negative plus/minuses since the season opener, meaning the Gamecocks have been outscored with them on the floor, even in mop-up duty.

So Jennings will likely need to play lots of minutes, and the Gamecocks will likely go as she goes.

Finding consistency from 3

Yes, 3-point shooting can seem to be a streaky, seemingly random facet of the sport. And yes, it can be frustrating to watch when the shots aren’t falling and players continue to chuck the ball from beyond the arc.

But Staley has been clear — South Carolina will be a 3-point shooting team this year, and the math backs this as a sound strategy. Now the Gamecocks need to have at least some consistency from game to game.

To describe the current 3-point shooting as feast or famine would be an understatement — through 12 games, USC already has as many games in which it made 10 3s as it did over the past two seasons combined. Twice, the Gamecocks have come within striking distance of the program record. But in six other games, the team hasn’t made more than four. Against Maryland, the Gamecocks were 1-for-21.

Carolina’s overall numbers for the season — 33.7 percent from 3, with 26.5 percent of points coming from such shots — are solid. Now the Gamecocks have to at least approach those statistics in most, if not all, of their games.

Defending CLA

The last time South Carolina had more than three losses at home was eight years ago, in the 2010-2011 season. Since then, the Gamecocks have accumulated a 101-11 record at Colonial Life Arena.

USC is 5-2 at home entering conference play, so it has little room for error to keep that streak going. The four most daunting matchups in Columbia appear to be with No. 7 Mississippi State, No. 16 Kentucky, Georgia and Missouri. Winning all four seems unlikely, but three victories would significantly bolster the Gamecocks’ resume. Splitting the quartet would probably keep the team on its current trajectory, and anything less than that would be a disappointment.

Fan focus will inevitably hone in on that Jan. 21 contest with Mizzou after last year’s unpleasantness, but the other three games will likely have intense atmospheres as well — Mississippi State is trying to wrest the crown of conference supremacy away, Georgia is a perennial rival and matchups with Kentucky always seem to be extra physical and fiery.

Dreams of Connecticut

When South Carolina takes a break from conference play to travel to Hartford, Connecticut, on Feb. 11 to face the sport’s preeminent powerhouse, it will almost certainly do so as massive underdogs, not picked by anyone to have a chance.

The Gamecocks have never beaten the Huskies, and this would hardly seem to be the year to change that — USC has been blown out by two top-10 teams at home already, and UConn is back to being the undisputed No. 1 team in the country. Connecticut hasn’t lost at home since March 2013, and it hasn’t lost to a team outside the top 10 since February 2012.

But hopeful Carolina fans can point to the fact that Connecticut has already struggled to put away St. John’s, Oklahoma and California as proof that coach Geno Auriemma’s team is not quite as invincible as in years past. And there’s still more than a month of basketball to be played in which narratives and expectations can change quite a bit.

Losing to Connecticut would say little about how good or bad South Carolina is compared to the rest of college basketball, and nothing can take away the conference success Staley has had over the past half-decade. But as long as UConn remains the standard of excellence in women’s basketball, all great teams and their fans will dream of beating the Huskies.