The 2017-18 South Carolina Gamecocks knew they had a tough act to follow, coming off the program’s first national championship and having lost three key contributors from that team. But while the Gamecocks fell short of playing for another title, they still reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight and won a record fourth-straight SEC Tournament championship — to say nothing of the incredible senior season that star forward A’ja Wilson enjoyed.
Let’s take a look back at the season that was, which ended with a 29-7 (12-4 SEC) record and a loss to top-seeded UConn in the NCAA Tournament:
South Carolina picked up a number of wins against ranked competition, but by far its most impressive was against then-No. 2 Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament championship game. The Bulldogs were undefeated at 32-0 and looked well on their way to unseating the Gamecocks as the conference’s best, but South Carolina’s post play and defense ensured that it stayed on top with a 62-51 victory. A 73-62 win against No. 12 Tennessee, also in the SEC Tournament, and a 64-54 regular-season win against No. 11 Missouri were other standouts.
South Carolina’s few defeats came only to other Top 25 teams, so it’s hard to call any of them truly bad. But there are a couple standouts, with the first being an 83-74 loss to No. 15 Missouri on the road. The game was heated, chippy, and physical, with plenty of hard fouls to go around and accusations of dirty play against the Tigers. It also set the stage for a fiery rematch in Columbia, after which Missouri AD Jim Sterk accused Gamecock fans of mistreating Tigers players and pinned blame on Dawn Staley for fostering an intolerant, hateful environment. (Sterk has still refused to recant his remarks, and Staley is now pursuing a libel suit against him.) The season-ending 94-65 loss to UConn in the Elite Eight was bad not because of the competition — it’s UConn, after all — but because of how painful it was to watch the Huskies put on an absolute clinic. For all the Gamecocks’ recent accomplishments, a win over Connecticut has continued to remain elusive.
As usual, South Carolina’s post play excelled, led by Wilson and complemented by Kentucky transfer Alexis Jennings and sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who had an excellent postseason. The Gamecocks typically overwhelmed their opponents in the paint and on the boards, as has been typical during Dawn Staley’s tenure.
A lack of consistent perimeter shooting haunted South Carolina, and it was a deficiency made even worse when guards Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Penn State transfer Lindsey Spann — who was scorching behind the arc early in the season — were lost to injury. There was precious little depth at the guard spots, with point guard Ty Harris the only reliable ball-handler, but freshman Bianca Jackson showed a lot of potential, especially late in the season.
No one wants to think about life at South Carolina without A’ja Wilson, but unfortunately, we have to try. Alexis Jennings looks to be returning after rumors of going pro, and the light seems to have come on for Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, which is a great sign. There are also reserves Lele Grissett and LaDahzia Williams, who will certainly get their chances to push for playing time. Last but not least, South Carolina also has ESPN Top 50 recruit Victaria Saxton coming in, who is a polished and explosive post player.
In the backcourt, there’s the assumed return of Bianca Cuevas-Moore after her medical redshirt, as well as Tennessee transfer Te’a Cooper, who will finally be eligible to play. Throw in assist machine Ty Harris, veteran Doniyah Cliney, and rising Bianca Jackson and that looks like a pretty solid group at guard even before you get to incoming five-star prospect Destanni Henderson. First in her position group and ninth overall in ESPN’s recruiting rankings, Henderson could be the type of instant impact player who challenges for SEC Freshman of the Year.
As a final point, the Gamecocks have also been very active in the transfer market in recent years, and often to great effect. We’ll see if Staley returns to that well to further boost the roster. Without Wilson, South Carolina needs to replace a lot of offensive production.