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This Year’s South Carolina Team Might Be the Best Dawn Staley Has Ever Coached

Despite losing all of last year’s starters, the Gamecocks coach has quietly turned a cast of freshmen, transfers and bench starters into another undefeated threat.

Dawn Staley has done this year exactly what she did last year: The veteran coach led South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball to yet another undefeated regular season. Once again, her group powered through a tough nonconference schedule before throttling competition in the SEC. Once again, close games were rare, and hardly any were given the chance to remain so into the fourth quarter. Once again, this was the consensus top team in the country. As a result, South Carolina is 29–0 heading into this week’s SEC tournament, just as it was last year.

The outcome is the same. It’s everything else that has looked different.

This season has been perhaps the most impressive coaching performance Staley has needed to give in her decade and a half at South Carolina. The program lost its entire starting five after last year. (Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Victaria Saxton and Brea Beal were all WNBA draft picks, as was sixth woman Laeticia Amihere.) That group had been the backbone of the No. 1 recruiting class in the country when they arrived in Columbia four years ago. Now, they’d left campus, and it stood to reason the program would have to undergo some meaningful changes without them. The Gamecocks had been to nine consecutive Sweet 16s and three consecutive Final Fours, but their national expectations suddenly looked rather modest. Staley was tasked with steering a group of freshmen, transfers and former bench players in what seemed destined to be a transitional period, and for the first time in years, South Carolina did not rank in the AP’s preseason top five.

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley speaks with guard Raven Johnson.

Both South Carolina’s lineup and style of play are entirely different from the last few years. But Staley and the Gamecocks enter the SEC tournament undefeated yet again. 

It took all of a week to correct that. The Gamecocks’ first two games of the season were against then No. 10 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and No. 14 Maryland Terrapins. They hung 100 points on each and won both games handily. Any questions about how this new group would mesh suddenly felt irrelevant. The Gamecocks were ranked No. 1 in the very next poll. They have not surrendered the spot since.

There’s plenty of credit to go around. Senior center Kamilla Cardoso had never started for the Gamecocks prior to this season, but she’s been in the starting lineup almost every game this year and has averaged a double double, earning honors as SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Sophomore point guard Raven Johnson has developed enormously as both a shooter and facilitator. This program traditionally hasn’t relied much on three-point shooting, but this year, Oregon Ducks transfer Te-Hina Paopao has been a crucial threat from beyond the arc. (She announced this week that she would use her fifth year of eligibility and return next season.) And the bench is stocked with talent, too, with Ashlyn Watkins and MiLaysia Fulwiley each boasting scoring averages in the double figures despite their status as reserves. In short, despite all its turnover, South Carolina has emerged as deep and balanced as we’ve ever seen it.

But it’s not just the personnel who are different from last year. This group has offered a meaningfully different style of play. The Gamecocks’ team identity has traditionally been centered on defense. (That only makes sense, of course, when a roster has been able to claim two of the best college post players of the last decade.) That hasn’t been left behind this year: South Carolina still boasts one of the very best defenses in the country, if not the best defense, and leads Division I in overall defensive rating, blocks and defensive rebounds per game. But that’s complemented by something new this season. This offense is not just better and deeper than last year’s. It’s arguably stronger than any that Staley has previously coached at South Carolina.

At a glance, this group plays much freer and considerably faster. (Their pace last year ranked outside the 200 fastest programs in D-I, a very effective product of that methodical, grinding defensive identity. It’s now in the top 40.) The result is a roster that moves the ball far more and is considerably higher scoring. Staley has never led a Gamecocks team that scores this much (87 ppg) or assists this much (19.1 apg). It’s the best three-point shooting team she has ever coached (40.1%) and the best overall shooting team, too (55.1% effective field goal percentage). It’s a triumph by the numbers. And it’s a remarkable adjustment from years past in more ways than one.

Handed a roster overhaul, Staley knew where to bend and where to hold firm, where to ask her players to adjust to a system and where to adjust a system for her players. The team has operated about as quietly as possible for a months-long No. 1. In a season where much national coverage has gone to individual, record-breaking stars, there has been comparatively little attention given to a roster this balanced and consistent. South Carolina has simply won and kept winning, ever reliable, perpetually successful. But there is plenty worth focusing on here as postseason play begins. The Gamecocks have finished this regular season just as they did the last one. They’ve just done it in an entirely different fashion. And there isn’t much question about whether they’re as good as they were last year. By now, it feels clear. They’re even better.