COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley is not counting on South Carolina's Final Four success last year to lift the Gamecocks even higher this season. That, the coach said, will take the same commitment to hard work her players showed to get to the national semifinals.
South Carolina starts the year at No. 2 in the country, only trailing three-time defending national champion Connecticut in the rankings. Staley knows her team has no birthright to a national title and must replicate the work it took to reach the Final Four.
''I think sometimes our players get into thinking, because we accomplished going to the Final Four, it's automatic,'' she said.
Staley stressed this team is separate venture, despite returning its three top scorers led by two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year Tiffany Mitchell. The ride to the top was nice, Staley said of going 34-3, winning a second consecutive SEC crown and reaching the program's first-ever Final Four.
But ''this is a new year. This is a new team,'' Staley said.
One loaded with talent.
Mitchell is the 5-foot-9 senior who leads the way. She topped the Gamecocks in scoring each of the past two seasons and last year won the Dawn Staley Award, given each year to the best guard in college.
A similar season could make Mitchell the first-ever three-time player of the year in SEC history.
Alongside her in the starting lineup are last year's super subs in forwards Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson. A season ago, Coates and Wilson formed a nearly unstoppable duo off the bench as they wore down opponents. This year, both are expected to move into the starting lineup as Staley hopes to get her team off to quicker starts instead of rally back as the Gamecocks had to do in NCAA tournament wins over North Carolina and Florida State.
Mitchell said the players' mindsets have changed after last year's run.
''From here on, we expect to be a Final Four team,'' she said. ''It will be disappointing if we don't make it back.''
Some other things to watch in South Carolina season:
COUNTDOWN TO CONNECTICUT: The question of ''Who's No. 1?'' could be settled in season as UConn again faces South Carolina. The Gamecocks were No. 1 for 12 weeks last year until they were blown out at Connecticut 87-62 last February. This year's game is in Columbia.
MITCHELL'S HEALTH: Tiffany Mitchell missed several weeks of practice after undergoing surgery on her foot this past summer, an injury revealed after she hurt her ankle playing for the United States at the Pan Am Games last summer. Mitchell was full go at practice this week and coach Dawn Staley said her senior guard got up to speed quickly. Mitchell and Staley both believe she'll be 100 percent this season.
FROM SUBS TO STARTERS: A'ja Wilson (6-5) and Alaina Coates (6-4) will be out on the floor at the start of games this season. Both say they've waited for this moment after spending last season coming off the bench. The two combined for 24 points and 14 rebounds a game last year.
MISSING PIECES: South Carolina enters this season without two of the players who helped them reach the Final Four in Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam, both seniors on the 2014-15 team. Welch was the emotional soul of the Gamecocks, a vibrant personality who took control of the team. Ibiam was a forceful presence on the front line.
ACC FLAVOR: Leave it to a former Virginia point guard in Staley to attract some of the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Gamecocks got a boost this offseason when ACC rebounding leader Sarah Imobvioh joined as a graduate transfer after leaving Virginia. South Carolina also brought in ACC scorers in Kaela Davis from Georgia Tech and Allisha Gray from North Carolina, both who will sit out this season.