The South Carolina women’s basketball team soared past pre-season expectations a year ago en route to its first-ever SEC regular season crown.
As a result, head coach Dawn Staley’s bunch are raising the stakes this year, and are making no effort to hide it. At no point during Tuesday’s women’s basketball media day did a player or coach shy away from their expectation to capture a national title.
Junior guard Tiffany Mitchell said her teammates would not back down from the goals they have set as a team.
"We set our mind on the ultimate goal and that is a national championship,” Mitchell said. “We know what we have on this team. Right now it’s just finding your place, not trying to do too much and just do your job.”
The vibe at Colonial Life Arena on Tuesday signals the meteoric change that has transpired in Staley’s six years at the helm.
By now, the rise is well documented. Staley took over a program in 2008 that had failed to reach the NCAA tournament in five seasons.
In Staley’s first two seasons, South Carolina failed to reach postseason play. Her third season started the most successful four-year stretch in program history that culminated with last season’s record-setting campaign.
A year ago, the Gamecocks were ranked No. 22 in the AP preseason poll and projected to finish fifth in the SEC by the league’s coaches. That team started the season with the intention of surpassing expectations and setting a firm place on the national stage.
Despite a loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 — the team’s second loss to the Tar Heels last season — South Carolina secured its highest final AP ranking (No. 8) in over 30 years.
This year’s team is not attempting to sneak up on anybody. Staley is preparing her team to be the hunted, but that has not deterred her expectations.
“I think we’re a Final Four team,” Staley said. “I think we were a couple of pieces from getting to that point in the last few years. Since then we’ve filled the void.”
In addition to returning all five of last year’s starters, the Gamecocks also boast the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, which is highlighted by No. 1 overall recruit A’ja Wilson.
Wilson’s signing is just one indicator of the impact Staley has had on the program. Staley landed her first in-state recruit nearly four years ago when she signed senior forward Aleighsa Welch.
Now, eight of the 15 players on South Carolina’s roster hail from the Palmetto State. Staley said that “cornering the market” and keeping players in state has given the program a huge advantage.
A byproduct of recruiting players from within South Carolina state lines is cohesion. Many of the South Carolina-based recruits have played against one another in tournaments and summer leagues, leaving them more familiar with their current teammates’ style of play.
Staley said that this familiarity is an underrated yet integral part of this team’s dynamic.
“It’s extremely important to have that chemistry, especially with who we have on our roster,” Staley said. “We have leaders, we have people who understand our culture here and they can show them [the recruits] the way.”
With the abundance of talent on this year’s roster, Staley and her staff figure to have their hands full in distributing minutes and finding the best rotations over the next month and into the early portion of the season.
From the player’s standpoint, Welch said that winning is the best way to end any potential dispute over minutes.
“If the coaches can put out a team and a rotation that’s allowing us to win games, it’ll make a lot of things go away,” Welch said. “You won’t hear a lot of complaining out of our locker room.”