Throughout the early stages of last season, much of the talk around South Carolina women’s basketball had to do with who wasn’t there — national player of the year A’ja Wilson was in the WNBA and had left behind an impressive legacy and massive shoes to fill.
So when practice officially started for the 2019-2020 season on Tuesday, who was on the court, battling away with the Gamecocks? Wilson, of course.
Back in town after her Las Vegas Aces were eliminated in the playoffs, Wilson wasn’t the big story though. That would be the influx of six newcomers to coach Dawn Staley’s roster, including a five-freshman class considered one of the best in the sport’s recent history.
Those freshmen have been on campus for a while now, adjusting to college life and getting some practice and conditioning in with their new teammates. But Tuesday still marked a special moment for them.
“It was an eye-opener because I’m not used to those three-hour practices,” freshman guard Brea Beal said. “Coming from high school, it’s more like an hour and a half. So it was tiring, but it was exciting.”
For a program that has become accustomed to advancing deep into the NCAA tournament — six consecutive Sweet 16s and two Final Fours in the past five years — how quickly the freshmen can integrate and get up to speed on the collegiate game will be crucial. As Staley acknowledged, there’s simply not enough returning depth for things to be otherwise.
“They gotta play. There’s some returners but not enough to sustain. They have to play and contribute right away, and I think they will be up for that challenge,” Staley said.
“... How much they process and learn and how much they’re able to connect the days are gonna be truly important. It’s hard. The pace that they have to play at, the things that we’re implementing on both sides of the ball are much different than they’ve ever experienced, so they gotta be quick learners when it comes to that.”
Thus far through the summer, senior guard Tyasha Harris said, the youngsters have fit in well.
“It’s great (to have so many freshmen) just because they’re like my little sisters and they’re willing to learn and they have open ears and they like to get coached, so that’s a good thing,” Harris said.
Beal echoed those sentiments, saying she and her fellow rookies want to “be yelled at” so they can learn and contribute quickly. But Staley knows it will still be a balancing act throughout the preseason and into games as well.
“I think we see glimpses of individual talent and some great plays, but there’s a lot of dynamics to our team right now. Like you have some older players like (Harris and senior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan), they want to be pros, so they want to have a good senior year so they can raise their stock and be a top draft pick. You have someone like (junior guard) LeLe Grissett, she wants to break into playing full time and a lot of minutes,” Staley said. “You have some of our sophomores who had a glimpse of playing a whole lot of minutes, they want to continue that. And you got a freshman class that, they just want to play right now and they want to showcase their talents.
“So how we get those dynamics to work together, that’s pretty tough. But day by day, I think what we do is we gotta break them down. You gotta break them down and then you gotta build them up, so they’re playing with confidence and they’re playing together, because I don’t want us to assume because we have a team full of talent that it’s an automatic win.”
A tough early slate will likely reinforce that message — the Gamecocks face Maryland, No. 5 in ESPN’s preseason rankings, in the second game of the season on Nov. 10, and a Thanksgiving weekend matchup with defending national champion Baylor follows soon after.
South Carolina opens the season — Staley’s 20th as a head coach and 12th at USC — at home against Alabama State on Nov. 5, with an exhibition on Nov. 1 against North Georgia.