Two and a half weeks removed from South Carolina women’s basketball’s opening game, coach Dawn Staley says she doesn’t want a repeat of last season, when the Gamecocks shuffled through plenty of lineup combinations before settling on a starting five she liked.
But speaking at SEC media day on Thursday, Staley didn’t exactly limit her options.
“This team is incredibly competitive and talented. I just told them last week, at some point we’re going to have to start formulating a starting five and having them play a lot more reps together,” Staley said. “And we have ones that embrace our roles. I don’t know who’s going to start today ... we have 10, legit 10 starters. Ten people could start for our team at this point.”
Seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who made the trip with Staley to represent USC at the tipoff event, both seem like safe bets to crack the lineup. But Staley cautioned against even putting too much stock in who’s starting vs. who comes off the bench.
“With us, it’s about combinations and who plays well together. Obviously we got some experienced players that have played in our program three or two years, and they’ve improved, so who works well with those combination of players, or who we put on the floor,” Staley said. “I will say this: Depth is an incredible thing. Our bench is going to be incredible, and they may be even more productive than our starters, depending on how we strategize and who starts and who comes off the bench.”
Staley added that she’s been pleased with the unselfishness of her team and praised the coachability of her star freshman class, which includes four of the top-11 rated prospects in the country.
“They come in highly rated, having played basketball at the highest level in some instances, and yet they treat this one like it’s the most valuable experience that they’re having,” Staley said.
Racing heart rate
That being said, thanks to a new technological innovation, Staley has pinpointed the player working the hardest during practices, and she’s a veteran.
“(Junior Lele Grissett) is doing a great job just leading by example, playing the hardest she’s played. We actually have our players wear heart monitors, and Lele by far works the hardest of anybody in practices, and that’s always a great thing when your experienced players are the hardest workers,” Staley said.
Those heart rate monitors have helped the coaching staff identify key moments in practice this preseason, Staley said.
“Our strength and conditioning coach wanted to see how much work each player is putting in, if they’re giving max effort. We’ll wear them in games this year as well, to see where we are. And it’s a good information tool for us coaches to utilize when it’s time to maybe pull back in some practices or push a little harder,” Staley said.
Competition at the top
South Carolina finished atop the SEC preseason media poll this year for the fifth time in six seasons, but the state of the conference is such that the Gamecocks are far from the clear favorites.
Mississippi State, Carolina’s main challenge for league supremacy over the past few years, is adjusting to life without All-American center Teaira McCowan. Texas A&M has preseason conference player of the year Chennedy Carter and returning depth but also has been stuck a tier below USC and MSU over the last couple seasons. Kentucky has an All-American talent in Rhyne Howard but must replace senior leaders Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. And Arkansas has had expectations rocket since a surprising run to the SEC tournament final last season, but the Razorbacks haven’t made an NCAA tournament since 2015.
“I think the league is really competitive from top to bottom. You have some teams at the bottom beat some ranked teams, some unranked teams beat some ranked teams this past season, and we were actually the youngest league in the Power 5 last year, so I think there’s gonna be a lot of growth that takes place this particular year,” Staley said. “You’re going to see more parity in our league this upcoming season.”