COLUMBIA — This would be a lot simpler if they could just play basketball.
Dawn Staley doesn’t do simple.
Staley made South Carolina women’s basketball elite, and she’s keeping it there by continuing to recruit coveted talent. There are classes, like her latest one, that are composed of high-ranking recruit on top of high-ranking recruit.
The group that’s currently on campus — freshmen Laeticia Amihere, Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal, Zia Cooke and Olivia Thompson, plus Texas transfer Destiny Littleton — was rated the best new class in the country. It’s already drawing comparisons to some of the greatest women’s classes ever assembled, and it’s still four months before they’ll play a game.
The last time a class this good came to USC, the next team wound up in the Final Four. And that class, despite boasting the No. 1 player in the country in A’ja Wilson, was only ranked No. 2 as a group.
So after two OK seasons — terrific by many other programs’ standards but merely decent by USC’s — this class is supposed to be the one to get the Gamecocks back to the Top 5 and championship stages, lofts that were a given from 2014-18. Nobody’s been shy about letting that sentiment known, either.
That’s fine. They’ve heard it. They know it.
They accept it.
“There is some pressure, and a lot of people expect us to come out and just be stars,” said Boston, the top-rated prospect in USC’s class (No. 3). “But we have to work up to that, and we will. Because we will live the expectations that everyone thinks.”
Boston’s getting it from all sides, fawning adoration for picking the Gamecocks and being the highest-ranked in a high-ranking class. She spurned Connecticut for Columbia, and giddy USC fans have already begun comparing her to USC post royalty — Wilson and Alaina Coates.
“(Wilson) was a great factor (in my decision),” Boston said. “Just to see where she came from freshman year, now to WNBA and all the accolades, it helped me to realize if I put in the work, I can be as good as A’ja Wilson.”
Amihere, the dunking sensation on campus since January in order to rehab a bad knee, said that Staley and the team’s strength coach have pointed out the class is No. 1 based on high-school accomplishments. This is college, to which Beal concurred.
“I think within all of us, we know that we still got to work together,” she said. “We understand what the No. 1 recruiting class is but we still got to know we got to work together, block all that out. The coaches let us know that it’s about the team, not about us.”
Cooke, the point guard, has found out what most Staley point guards do. Forget the handle-everything, highlight-reel scoring from your prep days. At USC it’s about distributing the ball and controlling the game.
She’s already blended with her teammates, freshman and veteran, seeing what matchups USC can throw at the opponents and how the No. 1 class can help. She, like many, likes what she’s seen thus far.
“For me, no pressure. And I’m sure it’s no pressure for them as well,” Cooke said. “We’re just going to do what we have to do.”
She wasn’t the only one to mention four Final Fours as a goal.
Those have to start somewhere.