When Dawn Staley says, "We've got a lot of work to do," eyes start rolling, because most coaches would love to be in her position. Her top six scorers are back, and she added three McDonald's All-Americans, including Parade high school player of the year A'ja Wilson, a 6'5" swingwoman from Hopkins, S.C., who can play all over the floor. Yes, Staley says with a laugh, practice has been "enjoyable."
Junior Tiffany Mitchell, the reigning SEC player of the year, will lead all of this talent. The 5'9" guard is skilled at creating her own shot but has to learn "how to play with the weapons surrounding her and understand when to turn it on," Staley says. "We can't rely on Tiff to wear the s on her chest every night or we'll be easily defended." Senior forward Aleighsa Welch provides consistent scoring, as does Alaina Coates, the 2013--14 SEC freshman of the year, who averaged 12.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in just 19.6 minutes.
Staley has built her reputation on D, so she spent the off-season talking offense with colleagues. Her biggest takeaway: "In previous years we had to know exactly where our shots were coming from," she says. "Now we have kids who can make plays in the moment, and we can become less predictable."
That won't cause eye-rolling from opposing coaches. Just fear.
With 2013--14 Stats
Tiffany Mitchell* 5'9" Jr.
Khadijah Sessions* 5'8" Jr.
Aleighsa Welch* 6'0" Sr.
Alaina Coates 6'4" Soph.
Elem Ibiam* 6'4" Sr.
A'ja Wilson 6'5" Fr.
ROGELIO V. SOLIS/AP (MITCHELL)
A crafty scorer, Mitchell must help develop other threats.
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WILSON)
TELLING NUMBER 29
Most wins for South Carolina since the 1979--80 team had 30. The Gamecocks won their first SEC regular-season title and received their first NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. Tiffany Mitchell was also the program's first SEC player of the year.