COLUMBIA — Every coach goes through it every season. Old talent departs, young talent comes in, coach has to find a way to make everyone happy even though only five can play at a time.
Dawn Staley will have a unique challenge this year. Her freshman class is rated the best in the country and the newcomers will play a lot. Yet there are six experienced players returning, and they’ve come to expect a few things by now as well.
“I don’t lay out our depth chart, I don’t lay out how we see our plans in the future. I do that periodically throughout their careers,” Staley said in April. “Some may like it, some may not like it, but I try to paint a picture that’s realistic in how individually things play out, and I think overall, it shapes our team.”
The Gamecocks lost seven of their 13 players from last season. Gone are the top two scorers and the top rebounder. Staley signed five freshmen and a junior transfer, Texas’ Destiny Littleton, who hopes to receive an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility.
The class of Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Olivia Thompson was already rated one of the best in women’s college basketball history, and that was before adding Littleton, a former McDonald’s All-American. Naturally it drew comparisons to the last time Staley signed a class bursting with stars, and what that team went on to be.
The Gamecocks’ Class of 2015 was ranked second in the country and featured top national prospect A’ja Wilson. That group helped the Gamecocks reach their first NCAA Final Four in its first season.
Same story, right? Talented class comes in and the Gamecocks board their rocket ship back into the nation’s elite.
Staley had an immensely talented team going into that 2014-15 season, one that won 29 games the year before and returned nearly everybody. With Goose Creek’s Aleighsa Welch, two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, Alaina Coates and Khadijah Sessions all coming back, it was an overflowing treasure chest that Staley mixed with the new class.
It wasn’t easy. As Staley has constantly said, coaching is not just X’s and O’s. It’s handling the egos and personalities of a roomful of young players. Yet it became a luxury.
She was able to slowly work in the mega-talented Wilson, making her USC’s sixth player. Staley could afford to let her new players feel their way around, instead of depending on them right away.
With this team, it’s not the same. The Gamecocks’ veterans are strong, led by three-year starting point guard Ty Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, an all-SEC candidate who will have multiple opportunities to score in a redesigned offense.
The other returning players are good but also are still learning. The freshmen may have to do what Staley didn’t have to do with her previous top class — play a lot, and lead.
“Growth takes place when you’re uncomfortable. If you’re not willing to go through being uncomfortable, I just don’t think you’re going to be very successful in life,” Staley said. “Those are lessons my mom taught me a long, long time ago.”
In summer workouts there are no minutes to divide and competitions to win. Everybody’s friendly. The freshman class was unveiled to the media last week and all said the team chemistry was terrific, Cooke remarking that she was perfectly fine with waiting for her turn at her best position.
“Ty’s the point guard,” she said. “I look up to them as well because they’ve been here. However I get to be on the floor, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Staley favors constant substitution and it seems likely that at least one of the freshmen will be in the starting five when the season begins. All of the recruits were the best players on their high school teams so telling them to wait their turn may come with a few hurdles.
“Until you’re able to get here and experience it, you don’t really know. But they’re good individuals, they got great character,” Staley said. “I think they kind of understand what they’re coming into.”
And Staley may not have to tell them to wait. She doesn’t have the luxury of eight dependable returners like she did in 2014-15.
The fresh five may end up being the best five.