Is this Dawn Staley’s best South Carolina team yet? — Kellie Harper talks Tennessee opener — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, November 10, 2021
As I watched Tuesday night’s South Carolina victory over N.C. State, I couldn’t help but think of Dawn Staley’s team less in terms of the opponents it will face this year, most of whom it will beat convincingly, but rather what the true ceiling of this team is.
After all, a young group went out and largely dominated a top-five opponent on the road in its very first game. The only times N.C. State got back into it came when the Gamecocks suffered some combination of offensive drought and mistakes, the former not significant enough to keep them from shooting 49 percent from the field, the latter failing to let the Wolfpack get close enough to turn the fourth quarter into much of a tense affair.
Offense isn’t what is scariest about this South Carolina team, though. They just come at you in waves. The math is pretty simple: all 11 players from last year returned. That team reached the Final Four, finished 15th in the country in opposition points per 100 possessions, held eventual-champion Stanford to 41.7% from the field and 66 points in the national semifinals, and added three of the nation’s top 4 2022 recruits to the mix.
For those keeping score at home: that means more continuity and more numbers to an already-elite defensive group. We saw the effects immediately. Elissa Cunane is one of the nation’s best bigs. She really wasn’t a factor in Tuesday night’s game. Diamond Johnson, the Rutgers transfer, went 50-40-90 for C. Vivian Stringer last year. Tuesday night? She was 2-for-12 from the field.
It’s one game, the smallest of sample sizes, but we all get why this happened, yes? And just how high that ceiling is?
Let’s compare. That 2017 team had an embarrassment of riches, A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates up front, backed up by Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. This team can run four bigs at you, led by Aliyah Boston. While Wilson’s place in South Carolina history is secure — she built this with Staley, there’s an actual statue of her there, and rightly so — it’s worth considering that Boston might give Wilson a run for her money in accomplishments and production at South Carolina before she’s through. And sophomore Kamilla Cardoso, in many ways, is ahead of where Coates was by the time the latter left for the WNBA. As for Laeticia Amihere, some WNBA talent evaluators think she might end up being the best frontcourt player of the group. And that leaves Victaria Saxton, bouncy and efficient, as the fourth big, somehow. It’s a pro-level frontcourt.
As for the wings and guards, it is worth remembering that the 2017 group wasn’t in fact, a great perimeter shooting team. Bianca Cuevas-Moore led them in three-point percentage at 37.4 percent, while both Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray checked in below 35 percent. This group? Both Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson were above 39 percent from three last year on three-plus attempts per game, while Staley expects more perimeter production from a now-healthy Destiny Littleton as well.
That’s before taking into account that the sheer numbers Staley can throw out there can help keep legs fresher, too. She’s always smart about managing workloads, and no one averaged even 30 MPG on the 2017 team, but that was in part because she had plenty of players to utilize. (Ty Harris as backup point guard? Yeah, that team was loaded.)
Last season, both Henderson and Cooke topped 32 MPG, Boston just over 30. I’d be shocked if we saw the same thing happen this season.
Really, we’re going to learn some things about this group in just a few weeks at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Ideally, we’ll get both a South Carolina-Oregon and a South Carolina-UConn game for maximum knowledge, but I’m particularly intrigued by the latter option. If Azzi Fudd is as good as advertised, seeing how a skilled, diverse set of skills in the Bueckers/Fudd/Williams trio either overwhelms South Carolina’s defense, or falls victim to it, will give us a sense of what the pecking order is, at least early in the season.
But by the time New Years’ Eve rolls around, we’re going to know how South Carolina matched up with Stanford and Maryland, too. If they continue to perform the way they did on Tuesday night, what we might be asking instead is how South Carolina compares to… South Carolina.
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Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee head coach
We’re not going with Harper this week just because she signed Justine Pissott out of New Jersey, but it didn’t hurt, Coach.
“We’re excited, we have a very busy week ahead of us for sure. We’re just really looking forward to getting going, getting started. Sometimes, you get to the point in practices where the next thing that you can do is play a game, and I think we’re to that point. Play a game, really see where we are, and I think we’ll come out of this week with a pretty good idea of who our basketball team is.”
On improvements after the exhibition…
“We’ve had some really good practices, and I’ve been proud of our team for that. I think we’ve had some growth. If we have a practice where maybe it wasn’t as sharp as it needs to be, they know it, they understand it, and the next day it’s corrected. They do a really good job of bringing energy to every practice, and when you do that, you are going to find ways to improve and get better. I’ve been really pleased with that.”
On team’s eagerness to get on the court…
“We had a closed scrimmage a few weeks ago, and after that closed scrimmage, we came back and improved on some things. After that, it hit them, it hit them pretty quick. I could tell they were ready to play some games. At that point, you’ve just got to keep motivating, keep finding ways to push them, maybe put in new things. This preseason felt a little bit longer because last year, COVID, it was just different. Our players have been chomping at the bit to get out there with uniforms on.”
On Southern Illinois head coach Cindy Stein…
“Very, very, very familiar with Coach Stein and her program. Playing them multiple times for six years, you get to know an opponent really well. They are going to be tough, they are going to be disciplined, they are highly skilled on the offensive end. It’s a veteran team, and they are going to come in not afraid. I think those are some of the qualities of her team and things we can expect to see.”
On quick turnaround to face UCF…
“UCF, that’s going to be a really tough game. First on the road, after a quick turnaround, against one of the top defenses in the country and a very veteran team. That’s a huge challenge for us. We want to take things one game at a time, but we’ve tried to put in some things offensively and defensively that we feel like could help us for that game on Friday, because we’re not going to have a lot of time to work on them on Thursday. You have to plan a little bit in advance when you’re playing a team like Central Florida.”
On goals for Wednesday’s game…
“We will have some game goals that we will talk about. Those typically include boards, turnovers, or lack thereof actually, some free-throw shooting percentages, and maybe some deflections as well. Each game is different, but those are some of the stats we will track throughout the game. As we go we might have game goals in the middle of the game. I think we will just see how things are going and try to find ways to challenge our team.”
On if free throw shooting is a big issue or a one-game concern…
“We coach as if we think every area is a concern when we don’t perform well. I think for us we just made sure that we were a little more intentional in getting those shots up. It’s something we’ll be tracking. We can shoot free throws; we just have to step out and do it in the game.”
On value of getting freshmen minutes in the first game of the season…
“I think early in the season is really good to get your young players, your freshmen, some of your players, even your upperclassmen that maybe are playing different roles. I think it’s important to get them minutes in non-conference games. Obviously, for us, it started a little bit with our exhibition game, but a lot this week. They need to help us. They need to be able to come in and play quality minutes in big games, and the only way they’re going to be able to do that in February, in March, is if they have the experience in November and December. That’s what we definitely hope to get for them in this non-conference schedule.”
On how much the freshmen can be evaluated in practice, or if the evaluation needs to come from real game minutes…
“Honestly both. I think we have a pretty good idea of who our freshmen are and what they are going to be able to do. But sometimes when you play in front of the lights, with a uniform on against a different opponent, you see a different side of them. I think both. I think we have a good idea of it now they’ve got to be able to execute in a game. When every play matters, times 10, they’ve got to be able to perform. We’re excited about that, but they have to get that experience.”
On health of team and if everyone will be ready for the first game…
“Yeah, we think so. We have some that are nicks and bruises, nothing major. Emily (Saunders) should be back for the game, and then obviously Marta (Suárez) is not available. We hope to have everybody else.”
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