Dawn Staley, South Carolina and history in the making — Lindsay Gottlieb talks JuJu Watkins, USC

The IX: Basketball Wednesday, Presented by The BIG EAST, with Howard Megdal, March 6, 2024

This season has been the remarkable buffet of hoops greatness I was sure it would be, and everything from Caitlin Clark to Fairfield to Hannah Hidalgo and JuJu Watkins to the return of Paige Bueckers and the emergence of Madison Booker have been delighting fans all season. But South Carolina has put together a season that could dwarf all of it.

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Editor’s note: Happy Basketball Wednesday and happy March, friends. And a huge thank you to the BIG EAST Conference, our presenting sponsor for Basketball Wednesday. The BIG EAST’s vision, under Val Ackerman, continues to lead the way on equality in women’s sports. And for the record, I have been saying that for years, before The BIG EAST became a presenting sponsor.

Let’s just set the terms here, as Dawn Staley‘s Gamecocks prepare for the SEC Tournament. South Carolina is undefeated in 2023-24, at 29-0. Since the NCAA began its women’s tournament in 1982, there have been nine undefeated seasons: six by UConn, one by Texas, one by Tennessee and one by Baylor. (We’re also going to make sure you don’t forget Immaculata 1972-73 and Delta State 1974-75. The NCAA ought to add these to the record books, too.)

But in all of these cases, the teams possessed some of the elite stars of their era, playing together, with an undefeated season coming relatively deep into those teams coming together. Immaculata went undefeated a year after a title-winning campaign. Same with Lusia Harris’ Delta State, Fran Harris’ Texas, Chamique Holdsclaw‘s Tennessee, and take-your-pick of UConns — Sue Bird/Diana Taurasi/Swin Cash, or Tina Charles/Maya Moore, or Breanna Stewart/Moriah Jefferson.

A year after finishing 36-1, though, this 2023-24 South Carolina team didn’t simply have to regroup from a semifinal loss to Iowa. Staley’s Gamecocks needed to be constructed in a fundamentally different way. Readers of this space know how impressive Aliyah Boston has been, first as a player in college who somehow matched A’ja Wilson‘s production (and by some measures, exceeded it), now as a member of the Indiana Fever who ascended to the WNBA’s elite immediately upon entry. (The most exciting part of Caitlin Clark’s decision to enter the 2024 WNBA Draft, from the league’s standpoint, may be just how perfect Lin Dunn’s team is set up to incorporate her, with no bigger reason for that than Boston, a fellow generational talent).

Had Staley merely lost Boston, that would have been catastrophic for almost any other program. But she lost so much more than Boston! She lost another first round WNBA pick, Zia Cooke. She lost Brea Beal, Cooke’s running mate in the backcourt and making it the team’s top three leaders in minutes per game to replace. And she lost both Victaria Saxton, another starter, and Laeticia Amihere, a bench big, to the WNBA as well.

The only modern equivalent is the 2016-17 UConn Huskies, who entered the NCAA Tournament appearing ready to post back-to-back undefeated seasons, something no NCAA Division I women’s team has done. (Morgan William had other plans.) That Huskies team lost Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck — the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA Draft, incidentally — but returned Napheesa Collier, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams.

This is instructive as we consider the way that team, for its undeniably successful 2016-17 campaign, fell off from the 2015-16 pace. To be clear: still great! But a drop in offensive rating (from 122.2 to 120.2) and defensive rating (from 67.1 to 75.7).

South Carolina this year, though? The Gamecocks are better. Better in offensive rating (116.2 from 114.7), better in defensive rating (73.2 from 73.9). By adjusted net rating (factoring strength of schedule), South Carolina 2022-23 and 2023-24 are essentially identical.

Iowa beat South Carolina by forcing them to shoot from the perimeter last year at the Final Four, a relative weakness for that group, 31 percent as a team. You might not want to do that this year. South Carolina, as a team, is shooting 40.1 percent from three, good for third-best in the country entering Wednesday’s games. (Caitlin Clark, for the record, is shooting 39.3 percent from three this year.)

To be sure: Dawn Staley didn’t just go with the players who remained. Her recipe included promoting from within (bigger roles specifically for Raven Johnson and Kamilla Cardoso), adding elite freshmen (MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson) and the incredibly vital transfer from Te-Hina Paopao, who has enjoyed one of the best guard seasons in program history. She’s making 48.6 percent of her threes!

It’s one thing to credit her recruiting, as everyone should. But Staley and the South Carolina staff have blended a new team, found a different way to play — their pace has jumped from 206th in the country to 35th! — and somehow improved in the process. The coaches who selected Tara VanDerveer as best Xs and Os head coach in the country made a defensible pick, to put it mildly — 1200+ victories, anyone? — but for my money the answer to that question is emphatically Dawn Staley, and this year is the irrefutable proof.

Most concerning for the rest of women’s college basketball, all three seniors on this team — Cardoso, Sakima Walker and Paopao — can return next season. Paopao already announced she’s doing just that, keeping South Carolina’s engine at Colonial Life Arena for another go at immortality. Even if both Cardoso and Walker choose to leave, of course, Staley gets to integrate three new top-100 recruits, including a 6’5 post, Adhel Tac, into her team next season.

“They’re a super-competitive group, and they don’t really like losing,” Staley told the media after the Gamecocks completed a second straight SEC undefeated campaign. “And they can compete in a lot of different ways…I didn’t anticipate being undefeated throughout this entire season, but they’ve found a way to be stable, all season, and to lead us.”

Pretty typical Dawn, crediting her team. Sure, coaches cannot win without players. But it’s Staley, setting a standard at a moment the game is the best it’s ever been. The players change. Staley, and the winning, is the constant.

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Five at The IX: Lindsay Gottlieb, USC

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.