It’s not the same team.
But the motto of dynasties is they don’t rebuild, they just reload.
Virginia transfer Sarah Imovbioh was playing power forward in the absence of Aleighsa Welch during South Carolina’s first day of practice on Monday, while Alaina Coates stepped into the starting center role vacated by Elem Ibiam.
The Gamecocks’ other rookies were running the floor, responding to coach Dawn Staley’s instructions and trying to get their first-option play down. They didn’t quite get it worked out. That’s OK.
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There’s a lot of time for it to get there, and the talent on this squad rivals last year’s 34-3 Final Four dynamos.
“They look good,” Staley said. “Alaina, she’s a year older. Once you hit that junior year, things seem to be a lot easier for you. They’re familiar to you and I just think she’s jumping out of the gym, she’s running the floor consistently.”
Replacing the two veterans, who never missed the NCAA tournament in four years, is the biggest hurdle the Gamecocks will face in trying to add to their postseason streak. Yet they seem to have found the perfect pieces to do it.
Coates steps into a starting role after claiming SEC Freshman and Co-6th Woman of the Year, all-conference and Greensboro Regional Most Outstanding Player honors during her first two years. Imovbioh, a vicious rebounder with the Cavaliers who’s already colored some of her hair garnet to match her new team, replaces one of the best rebounders the Gamecocks have ever had.
With reigning SEC Freshman of the Year A’ja Wilson able to play high and low, the Gamecocks can throw 6-5, 6-4 and 6-2 at opponents every night. Having so many chess pieces to move around is making Staley’s job fun but challenging.
“The chemistry is there,” she said. “This team is a little bit younger, a little less experienced in some ways, especially the leadership department.”
Strictly on the floor, though, the pieces seem to be in place to keep rolling. Imovbioh supplies the gritty lunchpail mentality Welch brought every night.
“Definitely rebounding. Definitely on the offensive end,” Imovbioh said of her potential impact. “That keeps me going. That’s where I get my momentum from.”
Playing face-up instead of in the middle as she did at UVa should free Imovbioh’s jumper, but her defense may win the game every night. Coates, who has two inches on Imovbioh, is already lauding her skills.
“She is built like an ox,” Coates said. “She’s very strong, and I can tell you right now, I highly doubt that people are going to want to bang against her. She might not be tall, but she will move you.”
Coates has been one of the country’s best bench players in her first two years, but has to gravitate into the starting role with no loss of effectiveness. It shouldn’t be a problem – many games last year were decided when Coates decided to take over.
“I’m still going to treat it like I was still coming off the bench,” she said. “Instead of being that spark off the bench, I want to be that spark at the beginning of the game.”
Wilson, gifted at every spot on the floor, will look to play more wing than forward this year, a place where she can show off her long-range shooting. The 3-pointer is a part of her arsenal, but she didn’t show it off last year.
That will change. A 6-foot-5 player who can shoot from outside as well as punish in the paint is a commodity not many have.
“I just like the face-up game. That’s who I am as a person,” Wilson said. “I think (me, Coates and Imovbioh in the lineup) would be a beautiful thing to see. I think that could happen, but it’s all up to the head boss lady over there.”
The head boss lady likes what she has. Two of her most talented players (transfers Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray) are helping her eligible players in practice. She has an outstanding core of veterans who tasted massive success last year and want more.
“I thought we had great energy,” Staley said. “I want to see if we can play at a pace where we can put our opponents back on their heels a little bit.”
NOTES: All-American Tiffany Mitchell remains out after having surgery on a stress fracture on her foot. Staley said she should be back in no more than two weeks. … Jatarie White continues to fight the stress fracture in her foot that derailed her freshman season. She is day-to-day.
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