‘What’s next?’ seems to be the question for South Carolina this year. But like life, the answer is complicated.
In the dance of the 2014-2015 college basketball season, the Gamecocks were the debutantes.
Ranked second going in, they reeled off win after win and were soon number one, where they remained for most of the season. They finally lost a contest, to eventual champions Connecticut, on Feb. 9. They won the Southeast Conference title, the conference tournament, and went to the Final Four.
Elite program status? Check. And that includes all the publicity and expectations that go with being newfound celebrities. South Carolina has been tabbed to win the SEC again this year, and are ranked second nationally. Some prognosticators have also picked them for a Final Four return.
Fans? Check: the Gamecocks have set a school record for most season tickets sold, with more than 11,000 so far this year, and counting.
So what is the next move for an emerging power?
Coach Dawn Staley aims high, takes small steps and remains balanced.
Ask Staley, who enters her eighth year as South Carolina’s coach this fall, what the team goal is this season and her answer is the same as many a coaching great before her.
“We want to win a national championship,” she said.
But in the next breath, Staley acknowledges that the team isn’t there yet.
“We want to create this championship team, but that’s hard for some of our players,” she said. “Each time we step on the floor, every individual has to get better.”
No doubt they will learn from this past weekend, when they battled UCLA to a three-point win in the game’s final minutes. They will learn as they travel to Hawaii this week and face a tough Arizona State team, as by Staley’s design, they will experience different styles of team play. The Gamecocks will learn when they face #15 Duke in two weeks, which will help them prepare for SEC play, where #4 Tennessee awaits.
If they do emerge as conference champions once again, Connecticut will be there, as the national title has been theirs five of the last seven years. But Staley coaches as she played for so many years: without limitations.
“Every year UConn is the team to beat and yes, I think we can beat them,” she said. “If you think you can’t beat them, they’ve already won.”
The road to a fantastic finish lies in the rebuilding that South Carolina is doing right now. It is easy to assume that because super-forward Aleighsa Welch and fellow starter Elem Ibiam were the only losses last season, that this year’s team is basically the same. Staley said that is not the case.
“We’re still working through what our identity is,” she said. “We were a very good basketball team last year. We’re a different team now. Our roles are established now better than they were a year ago. We have new people filling new roles for us.”
“We’re a work in progress. We’re ironing those things out, and players are handling it well.”
All-American senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, sophomore forward A’ja Wilson and junior center Alaina Coates remain the top three scorers, as they were last year. Senior guard Tina Roy has stepped up in her new starting role, as has reserve forward Sarah Imovbioh – one of three newcomers. But Staley said the team still has much growth ahead of them.
“We have to work on correctable things like taking care of the basketball, and also executing down the stretch,” she said. “We made plays (against UCLA) but we didn’t execute like it was designed. We just had pretty good plays and made a play.”
Mitchell agreed that the pieces have to come together.
“It starts now,” she said. “We’re building that foundation we need to eventually win a national championship. (Staley) is trying to put that in our heads now, so in everything we do, everyone has the same mentality.”
Staley has been drilling it in.
“In practice when we’re not doing what we need to do and are just going through the motions, she reminds us: ‘you need to play every game like it’s the national championship game.'” Mitchell said. “She does that to try to bring the best out of us.”
Though new to the elite program club, South Carolina has been building for quite some time.
Staley, who had a storied career as a point guard at the college, pro and Olympic levels, understands the importance of process. After building a successful program as the head coach at Temple for eight years, she took the helm at South Carolina in 2008 when the Gamecocks were at a low point. In her first year, they went 2-12 in conference. The next year they were 7-9.
Soon Staley began counting more victories, but they were of the grassroots, recruiting variety.
“I knew taking the job at SC that it was a rebuilding process,” she said. “I knew we had a shot to compete at this level because of the conference and the campus (location). We have some of the best talent in the country in South Carolina.”
“We had to make inroads with high schools, parents and players. Every one of our coaches has been a part of our rebuilding process by helping make those connections.”
Players began coming, and they keep coming. Half of the athletes on this year’s roster are from either South Carolina or North Carolina. Another four are from nearby Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
Mitchell, who was the Gamecocks’ top scorer last year, said she took a leap of faith when signing to the program.
“There was a trust factor, because they weren’t really that good when they were recruiting me, and I told (Staley), ‘I don’t know if I can lose – I’m not a good loser,'” Mitchell said with a laugh. “In her first few years they were losing, and I was like, ‘coach you’re a great person but I can’t deal with this.'”
“But she reiterated, ‘trust me, we’re going to get people in here and do things and turn this program around.’ It started with the first in-state recruit, so she told me to stay with her and it was a big risk, but it worked out for the best.”
Staley gives a lot of credit for the Gamecocks’ growth to associate head coach Lisa Boyer, who coached with her at Temple and coached her professionally. The same can be said of first-year assistant Fred Chmiel. Assistant coach Nikki McCray-Penson played with Staley on the storied 1996 Olympic gold medal-winning basketball team under Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
“My coaching staff is part of the coaching family tree that knows how to make players better and how to prepare them for the next level,” Staley said. “All have played or coached at the next level.”
But though they’d prepared, last season’s ascent into basketball stardom was somewhat of a surprise.
“We kind of got jolted into it last year,” Staley said. “It caught us off guard.”
Fortunately for South Carolina, Staley brought the same poise in as a coach that she used to wield on the floor when it was she who was facing down opponents. Both Mitchell and Wilson said Staley did an exemplary job of keeping them focused during their first Final Four.
“It was a great experience for us, and we took it in on and off the court,” Wilson said. “But on the court we knew it was strictly business. She kept us level-headed to where we wen’t too high with the highs and not too low with the lows.”
“She did a good job of…..getting us to take it as a regular game,” Mitchell said.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico uses the same terms to describe her friend Staley.
“She has a great perspective in that she doesn’t get too high or too low; just has a great feel,” Barnes Arico said.
No doubt a large chunk of that approach came from Staley’s days growing up in Philadelphia and playing street ball with boys until well past dark. It continued at the University of Virginia, where she was a three-time All-American, and on to the Olympic team and into the pros. Staley said she was influenced by both Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan and VanDerveer.
“Debbie was the kind of coach where she’d let you make your own mistakes, and Tara is a perfectionist and didn’t want you to,” Staley said. “I’m somewhere in the middle.”
Playing for Staley is an intense experience, both on and off the court.
“I’d say playing for me you have to be disciplined, you have to be a good listener and be able to retain information,” Staley said. “The things we’re asking them to do is what they do in their classes. We call them on exam days. Every day in practice is exam day.”
Wilson acknowledged the demands, but said players understand what’s behind it.
“We meet with an academic advisor once a week to make sure we’re on track,” Wilson said. “(Staley) understands it’s tough. We’ll have exams some weeks, but she keeps us level. She really understands what we go through. It helps us out.”
Mitchell said Staley’s focus is for the greater good.
“That’s what drew me to her as a coach” Mitchell said. “She’s done things in her career as a coach that I wish to do myself. She’s also experienced, as a player, high success at a high level, which I want to do as well.”
Staley’s methodical, step-by-step approach has paid dividends for South Carolina. She said young athletes are different now than when she was growing up.
“Today younger players want instant gratification. They want to win without putting in work,” she said. “Things look easy when you’re watching in your living room. You think you can just walk in there and do it.”
“We had to instill in them that you have to put the time in, working.”
Staley said every day counts.
“How well we progress overall depends on how well we progress every day,” she said. “Our players don’t get ahead of themselves; they do a good job of staying in the moment. We take our time with them and explain things.”
The good news for Staley and South Carolina fans is that Gamecock players are not only taking their newfound stardom in stride, but they’re using the pressure that comes with it as fuel.
“We have to play with that target on our back, and that gives us advantages in that everybody we face is going to give us their top game,” Wilson said. “It shows we don’t have any gap to mess up. One mistake and it can lead to multiple things. So we’re staying on track and staying focused.”
As a senior, Mitchell sees the ‘before’ and ‘after’ differences clearly.
“We need this pressure to bring the best out of us,” she said. “When we were underdogs we used that as motivation, but now that we’re at the top and we know everyone’s coming for us, we use that. Being at the top is good for us.”
Going back to their home floor after the Hawaii tournament will be a welcome embrace for the team, as crowds at Colonial Life Arena are known for being loud and raucous. Mitchell said she truly appreciates the atmosphere.
“It’s amazing to see the support from the city, and how everyone embraces women’s basketball now,” she said. “I was in the stands when I was in high school, where you could see a whole side of the arena empty. Now there’s barely an empty seat in the stands. It’s just crazy the turnaround we’ve had.”
South Carolina begins SEC play Jan. 3, as they host Arkansas.