2013-2014 was a year of milestones for South Carolina women's basketball. The program achieved a number of firsts and near firsts. It won its first SEC Championship. It attained its first number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Dawn Staley was the program's first coach to win the Russell Athletic/WBCA Region Three Coach of the Year Award. Alaina Coates was the first freshman in league history to win multiple individual awards from the coaches. The program's 29 wins was the second-most in school history behind its 30 wins in 1979-80. The ranking of fourth in the country it achieved late in the regular season was the highest since 1982. Tiffany Mitchell was the second sophomore in league history to win player of the year from the coaches. All in all, it was a banner year for Carolina women's hoops.
Yet it feels kind of empty after the Gamecocks' loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Why? Given all the team achieved this season, the stage was set for a better finish. After the Gamecocks capped off a ten-game SEC winning streak with a victory over Georgia that clinched the SEC Title, expectations were sky high. However, after that win, Carolina went 3-3. Granted, the competition--a regular-season game against Tennessee and conference and NCAA tourney play--was tough, but still, Carolina exceeded its season loss total in the final six games. Making it to the Sweet 16 was nice; Carolina hasn't made it that far many times over the years. However, for a team that won the conference title in the sport's toughest conference and that earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, not making it farther is a disappointment.
The good news for Carolina fans is that the Gamecocks will be contenders again next year. With little meaningful attrition and an excellent recruiting class in the works, there's no reason to believe Carolina won't be at least as good next year as it was this year. 2013-2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year for this program. Instead of experiencing growing pains, the young roster took the program to new heights. That roster will be joined by additional talent as the team seeks to do even more next year. The fact that changes to the tournament hosting process mean that a similar season next year will earn Carolina home-court advantage deep into the NCAA Tournament makes a deeper run all the more likely.
To really get to the next level and compete for a national title, though, Carolina has a specific need to address: Outside shooting. South Carolina 34.7% from beyond the arc is respectable, but elite programs such as Notre Dame and UConn sport significantly higher percentages. What's more, Carolina lacked multiple options from the outside, with Tiffany Mitchell's impressive year shooting the ball pushing up the much lower percentages earned by the other guards. This flaw was never more apparent than when during the Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina, the Gamecocks missed multiple open three balls while the Tar Heels were playing soft perimeter defense against all but Mitchell, daring the other Gamecocks to shoot. Outside shooting was only a minor flaw for this team, but it was enough of a flaw to cost the Gamecocks a trip to the Elite Eight.
It's not clear whether the incoming class will satisfy this need. The Gamecocks bring in two highly rated guards in SG Kaydra Duckett and PG Bianca Cuevas. Neither, though, is known as a sharpshooter, although Cuevas is a legitimate threat and Duckett has the potential to be one. Both have strengths in attacking the basket, with Duckett effective with both her mid-range jumper and finishing moves, and Cuevas known for the floater she uses to finish and her passing ability in the lane.
If the shooting doesn't improve, at least Carolina will get richer in the post game. Joining the already formidable Carolina front line will be Jatarie White and hopefully A'ja Wilson, ranked seventh and first in the ESPN recruiting rankings. White is the more conventional post player who is known for her physicality and ability to finish under the basket, while Wilson combines the size and power of a center with the athleticism of a wing forward.
The pressure will be high on these incoming recruits to be the players who put Carolina over the hump. This program has improved tremendously under Dawn Staley, joining Carolina football and baseball to make the athletics program three of four in fielding excellent programs in the four major college sports. Now the goal is figuring out how to get just a bit better in order to compete for a national title. That's no mean feat, as the baseball program learned in the early 2000s and the football program is learning now. I wouldn't bet against Staley, though.