COLUMBIA - Kaydra Duckett's expectations evolved over time, changing as the South Carolina women's basketball team's reputation grew last winter.
Duckett, from Dreher High in Columbia, committed to the Gamecocks near the end of her junior season more than a year ago. She watched a team picked to finish fifth in the SEC win 21 of its first 23 games. She would periodically flip to a game on television, check the ranking next to South Carolina on the scoreboard, and realize her future team was a program on the rise.
By the time the Gamecocks had their first SEC championship and the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, Duckett knew. At South Carolina, she would pursue a national championship.
"It dawned on me when I saw them become the No. 5 team (in the country). I said to myself, 'Wow,'" Duckett said. "Me and my dad were talking, and he was telling me the team was No. 5, and I said, 'If they're No. 5 now, and A'ja (Wilson) comes, I'm not saying we'll win a national championship in our freshman year, but one can come very, very soon.'"
Duckett was the first, taking a chance when South Carolina was considered merely a fringe contender. Others would follow.
The nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class - featuring a quartet of five-star freshmen - has arrived on campus for summer school and offseason workouts. There is Duckett, who grew up 10 minutes from Colonial Life Arena. There is Bianca Cuevas, who could provide immediate depth - and potentially an instant upgrade - at point guard. There is Jatarie White, a McDonald's All-American and the nation's top center.
And there is Wilson.
Together, the five-player class - including three-star guard Doniyah Cliney - is historic. Under coach Dawn Staley, South Carolina has reached new heights on the recruiting trail. The talent infusion is expected to place the Gamecocks among the nation's elite programs.
Wilson, the nation's No. 1 high school player last season, said there's no shying away from the expectations. Already, she's heard chatter about making a run at a national title.
"Once I signed, I saw it coming," Wilson said. "I was just like, 'OK, now everybody is expecting this of us. We've got to do something.' I have people coming in my ear, saying, 'If you don't make it to the Final Four, we're gonna fight.' I'm like, 'Man, we haven't even played yet.' Really, those expectations, I take it all in stride.
"My goal is to win a national championship. That's what I want to bring here. I wanted to be somewhere where I was kind of building something up."
Among teammates, those two words have been discussed a lot. Everyone outside South Carolina's program believes a national championship is imminent. The freshmen who have just arrived on campus won't disagree.
White said the pursuit of a national championship is discussed "all the time." She called it "nerve-wracking," trying to accomplish something that has never been done before. But that's why the Charlotte native wanted to attend school just down the road.
"I don't want to live in other people's shadows," White said. "Like, Tennessee, they've won national championships. I just really wanted to make a difference."
South Carolina's freshmen could've gone elsewhere, to programs with glitzier history and more tradition. Wilson and White each had Tennessee on their short lists. Instead, they chose to carve an unbeaten path.
It's rare for a freshman class to enter a program and within the first week lend their voices to a national title hunt, rarer still when those stakes are a constant topic for discussion in dorm rooms and off the practice court. This is a new reality at South Carolina. Over the next four years, Duckett knows the pressure is something she and her classmates will have to handle.
"We know what everybody's expecting," Duckett said. "They're expecting us to win the national title. What we're expecting from ourselves though is to become not only better athletes, not only better in the SEC, but better young women. In that process - whatever happens, happens. That's just how we're going to go about it.
"We don't even know what we're going to eat for lunch today, let alone if we're going to win a national title this year or next year. It doesn't make a difference to us. What we're trying to do is become better, and better each game. We're going to take it one game at a time."
Heathwood Hall's A'ja Wilson was the top women's basketball recruit in the country coming out of high school this year. (The State/Tracy Glantz/ File)×
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