COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is ready to move past the recent distractions and see what her top-seeded Gamecocks can do without half of the country's best low-post duo.
Since South Carolina (27-4) won the Southeastern Conference Tournament on March 5, there has been a flurry of activity around the program.
- Staley was named the next coach of the U.S. women's nationals team
- The coach complained loudly about her team being sent across the country if they reach the Sweet 16
- Staley also learned senior center Alania Coates won't be able to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Well, not it's time to get back to the court.
The Gamecocks face No. 16 UNC-Asheville (19-14) in first round action on Friday with Michigan State (21-11) playing Arizona State (19-12) in the second game in Columbia.
South Carolina's success this season has been tied to Coates, a second team all-SEC player and the league's leading rebounder averaging 10.7 boards and 12.9 points a game, and her low-post partner A'ja Wilson. The Gamecocks have been outscored in the paint just three times this season, losing all three.
They have played three late-season games without Coates, winning them all. Staley's strategy has been to play more guards driving the lanes for open shots, especially if defenses collapse on Wilson.
Wilson, a junior, is going to try to take up Coates' rebounding prowess and stay out of foul trouble, since she and freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan are now the Gamecocks only true post players.
''It could be,'' Wilson said when asked if there should be even more pressure on her with Coates out. ''But I don't feel it.''
Some other things to look for in Friday's matchups:
EXPIERIENCED CINDERELLA: In a way, UNC Asheville is a typical No. 16 seed, going 9-9 in the Big South Conference before winning four in a row to win the league tournament. But then again, the Bulldogs aren't. They return 12 players from a team that earned a 14 seed in last season's NCAAs, losing by 54 at Kentucky.
Senior guard KJ Weaver said last season the Bulldogs were nervous and just happy to be in the NCAA Tournament. This year, winning eight of their last nine has given the team quiet confidence. Coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick has reminded her team they can join 1998 Harvard women as the only teams in the men's or women's tournament to ever beat a No. 1 seed (the Crimson beat a Stanford team hobbled by injuries 71-67). ''It's always a possibility for another historic moment,'' Weaver said.
STOPPING TORI: No player in Columbia has been more valuable to her team than Michigan State's Tori Jankoska. The 5-foot-8 senior is 10th nationally in scoring at 22.5 points a game, leads the Spartans with eight rebounds a game and is second on the team with nearly five assists a game. But to win, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said Jankoska can't do too much.
''There is a lot of things she can do to make our team better. I don't expect her to have to score 35 or 40 points. And I don't think you can against Arizona State and the way that team defends,'' Merchant said. Arizona State's Kelsey Moos said watching Jankoska reminds her of Washington's Kelsey Plum, who leads the nation at 31.7 points a game.
HEALTHY SUN DEVILS: Arizona State (19-12) went just 9-9 in the Pac 12 in 2017, a season after being co-regular season champions and earning a No. 2 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Sun Devils lost guards to graduation this season, but also dealt with injuries. Moos missed almost the whole Pac 12 season after hurting her foot in the second overtime of Arizona State's win over California on Jan. 1.
''If we had Kelsey healthy, I think we would have been right there like last year,'' Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said.