“Let’s do it right, Aja.” -- Steely Dan
WHAT SOUNDED like a war whoop emanated from around Carolina Coliseum and could be heard in the air at Heathwood Hall on Wednesday, or perhaps it was just a sound effect caused by the wind.
Dawn Staley might have had something to do with it.
“These are the players that we set out to sign years ago,” she said of the primal scream she released when A’ja Wilson called to commit. “For us to be able to check off almost everybody who we wanted was incredible.”
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When Wilson picked South Carolina, a program already expected to challenge for the Final Four next season was penciled into a hotel reservation in Tampa, site of the next national championship. The Gamecocks were going to add a massively talented recruiting class to a team that lost one marginal player – now, that class is No. 2 in the country, and expectations have skyrocketed.
High expectations are nothing new for Staley. She played and coached her entire career with them, even when she took over a moribund USC program six years ago and weathered early injuries and defections before her battle-hardened group of seniors led her to the first of three NCAA tournaments.
Now the expectations are much higher. There will be some disappointment if USC doesn’t at least get to the Final Four next season.
Staley’s next squad will have the talent to get there. Three McDonald’s All-Americans and two savvy guards in whom Staley sees herself are coming to Columbia, adding to a team that returns two first-team All-SEC players, the SEC Player of the Year and the SEC Freshman of the Year/Co-6th Woman of the Year. The rest of the squad isn’t too shabby, either, having combined for 79 wins in three seasons.
“They’re a program on the rise and I would love to be a part of it,” Wilson said. “(Staley) turned the program around and they’re on the rise of something great.”
The only problem Staley might have is how to play all of them. The starting five returns. Recruits with this much talent were staples in the high-school starting lineup and played most every minute. How will they adjust to staying on the bench for a while?
“I really don’t know,” Staley said. “But I think the players that are returning, along with the newcomers, are saying one thing, which is they want to win the national championship. When you have all the players like-minded, I think you can accomplish that.”
“I think she’ll do it quite well,” Wilson said. “That’s why she’s the great coach she is. I trust her about that.”
What helps Staley on that point is the Gamecocks played well with it last season. Alaina Coates is one of the best players in the country, yet started one game. Staley wasn’t going to mess with a starting lineup if it was working, and nobody had their nose out of joint if they didn’t start.
Perhaps next year is an open competition for every spot (although it’s difficult to imagine Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch not resuming their roles). Coaches don’t sign this type of talent and not play it. Besides, there is a long summer and preseason before any decisions have to be made.
Wilson played big in high school because she had to. Her best spot in college will be on the wing.
“I look at myself as more of a three,” she said. “If you want the best of A’ja, the three-guard’s the spot.”
Whatever the lineup, USC will be expected to win. In many games, the Gamecocks’ sheer talent will be enough. There will be other cases, such as in this year’s SEC and NCAA tournaments, where USC will need that extra push. Having players who have been there will help, and the hope is that the newbies will supply that right mix of extra talent and experience gained throughout the season to channel a deep tournament run.
Expectations will be massively high. Staley is fine with it.
Much better than if she was meeting low expectations.
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