It took a long time to get here. Dawn Staley has said ever since the NCAA tournament trips and All-SEC honors began accumulating at South Carolina that she’s never too far from that inaugural 10-win campaign.
With her team again picked first in the preseason poll and other players and coaches at SEC Tipoff anointing the Gamecocks as the team to beat, Staley didn’t smile and didn’t frown. It’s part of the game, that’s all – she and her team don’t embrace or ignore it.
It’s there and that’s great. They earned it.
But celebrating it takes away the focus from sustaining it.
“Any time that you are picked No. 1 ... the history of it is usually the team that won it the previous year,” Staley said. “I don’t know how to take it, but I think our players have played in this position all year long so the core of them understand what it is to be the hunted at this point.”
The Gamecocks have gone 29-3 in the SEC during back-to-back regular-season championship seasons, and often made it look easy. They were picked seventh in the preseason polls before their first title, then picked first before their second and first before this season.
The SEC drastically improved. USC lost a key piece to the last two years. The target grows bigger with every win.
The Gamecocks played with it last year and still won. It didn’t go anywhere and they know it.
“I feel like we should have the same mindset if we’re No. 1 or No. 10,” said Tiffany Mitchell, a two-time SEC Player of the Year and preseason pick for a third. “We still have to go out and play our game.”
A’ja Wilson, SEC Freshman of the Year last season, has dealt with high expectations throughout her life. Regarded as one of the best prep players to ever come from South Carolina, she was projected to be a collegiate star from Day 1.
She’s living up to it individually, and the team has flourished. Perhaps it’s best for a player lauded so much as a youth to join a team expected to be great – that way each knows what the other has done to reach the top spot and there’s no extra pressure.
“People expected a lot out of me,” Wilson said. “They really kind of helped me tackle that and when things weren’t going as well as they would expect or I would expect, they helped me stay strong and push through it.”
The plaudits for Staley’s program are good – she can use them to recruit and reward. She doesn’t use them to rest. She worked too hard for the Gamecocks to get here to let it slip away.
So the No. 1 will be a note in the media guide. That’s it.
“I don’t think we play for anything besides being the best,” Staley said. “And if you’re the best in this particular league, you can find yourself contending for a national championship. If that means we’re putting ourselves in that position, I like it.”