SEC preview: The South Carolina Gamecocks

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Southeastern Conference coverage continues today, with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Basketball teams are all about the players, and always have been. But every once in a while the coach is the story more so than the athletes. For the South Carolina Gamecocks this year that is the case – times four.

It was a coup for University officials to land Staley last spring. I’m still wondering how they convinced the four-time Olympian to leave her hometown and head coaching job at Temple University to take over a program that has languished for years.

Staley earned her “legend of the game” status through her gritty play, her relentlessness in pursuing a career overseas before there was a WNBA, and for her competitive drive. Her player resume is dotted with copious “best player” awards. And Staley has also succeeded as a coach.

In eight years at Temple, her teams made six NCAA tournament appearances and won four Atlantic 10 Tournament titles. Since her retirement from basketball in 2006, Staley has coached two FIBA world games and one Olympics, winning two gold medals and one bronze.

As if all that weren’t enough, Staley brought some help with her.

Lisa Boyer, who has been Staley’s right-hand assistant since the 2002-03 season at Temple, joins her at SC as the recruiting coordinator and guard coach. Boyer has had numerous prominent assistant coaching positions, as well as a couple head coach jobs, in her 27-year career.

Staley noted that she has milked Boyer for all her coaching knowledge over the last few years, and said she “trusts (Boyer) with her life.” In turn, Boyer said she is “thrilled to have the opportunity to get South Carolina women’s basketball where it needs to be, which is among the top teams in the SEC.”

When Staley’s other two assistant coaches are put into the mix, it becomes apparent how deep the Gamecock coaching staff runs.

Carla McGhee was a two-time NCAA champion while at Tennessee, and is an ABL, WNBA and USA Basketball veteran. In 2006 and 2007, she served as the WNBA’s director of player personnel, and this year was a consultant/ambassador for the Atlanta Dream.

McGhee’s association with Staley goes back to the early 1990’s, when Staley joined USA Basketball. The two were part of a squad that won the World Championship in 1994 and the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic games. The close-knit Olympic team has been credited for revitalizing women’s basketball and serving as an impetus for today’s professional leagues. (The year of preparation for the games is chronicled in the book, “Venus to the Hoop”).

“(Carla) is in it to ensure that young people experience the success she has had in her career,” Staley said. “After everything we went through together getting to the 1996 Olympics, for us to be standing on our own two legs says a lot. We grew up together, and we matured together as young women. She knows deep down that our hearts are always in the same place when it comes to young people and being competitive. When you have those things in mind, you are going to be successful.”

Deep enough? Add Nikki McCray.

Another former Lady Vol, McCray was on the 1996 team with Staley and McGhee, and won a second gold medal in 2000. She has played in both the ABL and the WNBA, and for the last two years has been assistant coach at Western Kentucky.

“Nikki is hungry for success, and that comes from playing at Tennessee, where the coach never settles for anything less than being number one,” Staley said. “That mentality is instilled in Nikki, and I want people around me like that.

“We spent two Olympic games together and have shared being successful in the very best arena there is to test yourself.”

For Staley, to have people around her who she’s known for almost half of her years, whom she’s shared some of the most meaningful moments of her life with – that doesn’t happen often. And it bodes very well for the South Carolina program. If nothing else, the chance that coaches will be yelling different things at players during games, as reportedly happened last year at Duke, will be next to nothing. Staley and her staff will not only be on the same page, they have written that page together.

At least for now, the amazing story of the Gamecock coaches eclipses the players. There are but three seniors on the team: Demetress Adams, Brionna Dickerson and C.J. Pace. Only Adams and Dickerson had a double-figure scoring average last year (10.9 and 10.4, respectively), their first time doing so in college.

Valerie Nainima, the lone junior, is a transfer from Long Island University. She shows promise not only because of her age, but her offensive game; she was the fastest player at LI to reach 1,000 career points.

Freshmen Charenee Stephens was named the fifth-best forward in the country by and ranked 33 by last year.

The remaining three sophomores and five freshmen have the requisite “best in state” and/or state titles that come with D1 recruiting, but Staley and company have their work cut out for them. This is a young, inexperienced team with emphasis on the inexperience.

Staley and her people can handle it, though. Further, I expect South Carolina to rise to the top of the conference within the next few years and begin having annual battles with Tennessee for the SEC crown. With about 130 years of basketball experience between them, coupled with cell fusion-like ties, you’d have to be crazy to bet against Staley and her staff.

Staley carried the flag in