After a year of challenges, Staley quite proud of her team
In the fall of 2017, the hot offseason topic in women’s college basketball was transfers — the rising rate of them, how teams were increasingly using them to win big and what, if anything, should be done to stem them.
At South Carolina, however, transfers were by and large a positive thing — Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis had helped USC win a national championship after starting their careers at different schools. Alexis Jennings was set to play a major role after transferring from Kentucky, and Dawn Staley was hoping to get Te’a Cooper, a highly-touted transfer from Tennessee, an NCAA waiver to make her immediately eligible.
Fast forward to April 2019, and the Gamecocks have now been hit with the flipside of the rise in transfers: four players, including Cooper, are set to leave the program, leaving Staley with just nine scholarship players set to be on the roster for next season. For some observers, the drove of players leaving raised questions about the stability of the program. For others, it’s simply the reality of the sport nowadays — players come and go with increasing frequency.
Count Debbie Antonelli, a basketball analyst for CBS and ESPN, among the latter group.
“It used to be shocking, but nothing surprises me now, because of the number of kids that just think the grass is always greener somewhere else,” Antonelli said of the optics of the recent spate of transfers.
From Antonelli’s perspective, there are a multitude of reasons why four players leaving in one offseason is the new normal — increased freedom of movement for student-athletes, an emphasis on summer school that means more and more players can graduate in three years and immediately transfer somewhere else and a backlash against “tough love” coaching techniques.
Compounding the issue, Antonelli says, is the addition of the transfer portal — the NCAA database that allows student-athletes to bypass asking their coach for a release and instead broadcast to every coach in the country that they are seeking a change.
“I call the transfer portal the ‘tele-portal,’ because I think kids think they’re going into the portal and they’re gonna teleport to Disney,” Antonelli said.
In particular, the debate over players’ willingness to accept tough coaching versus coaches abusing their power to bully players has been reignited in recent weeks. Georgia Tech and UNC have fired and placed their head coaches on leave, respectively, for alleged misconduct, and UConn coach Geno Auriemma went so far as to say that coaches are now afraid to aggressively challenge their players for fear of being accused of something similar.
Staley herself has a reputation as a tough coach who pushes her players hard on and off the court. And after news of this year’s transfers broke, former players took to Twitter to defend her. Antonelli also pointed to another incident that she says is emblematic of Staley’s rigorous standards — the transfer of Kelsey Bone, then the program’s highest ever rated recruit, in 2010.
“That proved to everyone that (Dawn was saying), ‘Look, this is what we’re doing, this is a disciplined environment, this is the culture I want to build,’” Antonelli said. “‘If you don’t want to be a part of it the way we set it up in the early stages, then go.’ I thought that was a big deal.”
Those standards have led to the most successful stretch in program history, but it has also come with significant roster turnover. Over the past five years, 53 percent of South Carolina’s signees have or will transfer, more than other powerhouse programs like Louisville, Stanford, Notre Dame and UConn and more than all but two programs in the SEC — Florida and Ole Miss both underwent coaching changes in that time.
Still, even with the most recent batch of players leaving, Antonelli believes the issue remains one facing the sport as a whole, not just South Carolina. This time around, the Gamecocks just got the worst of it.
“I think it looks worse than it is because there’s four of them at the same time,” Antonelli said. “So I think it compounds the issue because more than one has left.”