USC Women's Basketball

As South Carolina’s star freshmen move in, Dawn Staley prepares for balancing act

They’re finally coming — South Carolina women’s basketball has started to welcomed its top-rated freshman class to campus — forward Laeticia Amihere enrolled early, and post Aliyah Boston arrived Thursday.

The five-player bunch, which includes four five-star prospects, three McDonald’s All-Americans and two top-five players, has been hyped, honored and anticipated for months now. Their talent is a large reason why the Gamecocks have landed in the top 10 of several early 2019-2020 rankings.

Having that many superstar players is obviously coach Dawn Staley is excited for, but it could also mean having some direct conversations over the next few months, she told The State at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, last month.

Staley has experience balancing a roster full of top-rated talent — ahead of the Gamecocks’ 2017 championship run, she had junior A’ja Wilson, an All-American and the top-rated prospect in her class, senior Alaina Coates, a top-30 prospect and All-SEC talent, and redshirt juniors Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, former top-10 recruits.

“I sat down and had a conversation with A’ja, Alaina, Kaela and Allisha when they were all eligible and I just said, basically, I probably had the same conversation, which was, ‘I’ve never been a part of, in women’s college basketball history, where there were four All-Americans (on the same team). There’s never been that. There probably never will be. I hope it is, for your sake. I hope it is. But more than likely it won’t happen, so somebody’s gonna miss out. And we’re gonna all have to be very happy for each other if you’re the one that’s missing out,’” Staley said.

The challenge of keeping all her star freshmen — Amihere, Boston, point guard Zia Cooke, wing Brea Beal and guard Olivia Thompson — happy is a tricky one for Staley, compounded by the fact that they’ll be coming from high school, where there was never any question who would get the ball.

“They all, in their own right, they want to be All-Americans, they want to be Rookie of the Year, they want all those things, and not only is their competition gonna be outside of who’s gonna be in that room, but it’s gonna be inside the room,” Staley said. “And that’s a little different than what they’re used to, although I can equate it to USA Basketball.”

On top of that, Staley already has a group of returners that are no slouches themselves. Add that all together, and you’ve got a delicate situation that will require a little bit more of a hands-on approach, Staley said.

“We also have to mix in who we got returning and you can’t underestimate the value of experience. And so although the younger players will probably play a role that they haven’t played for yet in their young careers, they’re gonna be tested in ways in which it’s gonna hurt, but growth is taking place,” Staley said. “I’m gonna have those conversations, similar conversations to what I have with everybody, but going a little bit deeper and kinda painting a picture of ‘What if it doesn’t look like what’s in your head?’”

Those conversations aren’t necessarily happening today though. For now, the newcomers are settling in, and Staley said she wants to monitor that process before really digging in once the fall hits.

“I just want to feel them out and see how they are. Because you may have conversations that may not even be an issue,” Staley said.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.