There was probably no doubt in anyone's minds, even after Dawn Staley went 24-33 in her first two seasons as the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks women's basketball team, that success would come soon.
A three-time Olympic gold medalist? Six-time all-star in the WNBA? Back-to-back national player of the year? And a six-time NCAA participant while coaching at Temple, basically her dream job in her native Philadelphia?
One hundred fifty-five wins, a Women's Final Four and a contract extension later, the expectation has been set. Simply making it to the NCAA Tournament isn't enough for Staley and her Gamecocks program, who have never been to the Big Dance five straight years, a statistic that will change barring anything short of an absolute calamity.
How about winning the whole thing?
As we stand today, women's basketball at the University of South Carolina, for a long time there-but-not-really-there in the middle of a college football-mad region, is the top athletic program on campus. It's approaching the dynamic that exists at the UConns, Tennessees and Baylors of the college landscape, places where women's hoops aren't just another small part of the sports equation, but share equal footing with, if not exceeding, their male counterparts in interest. And it's shown in the attendance, too. The Gamecocks led the nation in attendance in the 2014-15 season (average of 12,540). The highest attended game in Staley's first season (2008-09)? 5,438 against Alabama. Do the math.
It's not that the women's basketball program wasn't good in the past. From 1987-1991, they put together a 92-36 record, appearing in four NCAA tournaments and advancing to the Sweet 16 in 1990. They didn't make the tournament again until 2002, surprising the college basketball world with a 25-7 record and a trip to the Elite Eight a season removed from a 11-17 mark. The 2003 tournament saw them fall in the second round, failing to match up to the run of a year prior. That was as far as the upward trend would go. After going a disappointing 69-82 with no NCAA berths in the five seasons following the 2002-03 tournament team, Susan Walvius resigned.
Enter Staley, and the rest is history.
And it just seems like this new era of success will last a little while longer. Consider that Staley, who just inked a contract extension that will leave her tied with Nancy Wilson as the longest-tenured women's hoops coach in school history when it ends in 2021 after her 13th season, is the head coach of the United States U-19 women's team—looking for its sixth-straight gold next month in Russia at the FIBA World Championships—and is an assistant for the senior national team. You know, that makes it a tad easier to get girls to play for you in college. That is, of course, if playing on three gold-medal teams in the Olympics, being named a college player of the year twice and a WNBA All-Star six times, and getting yourself inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame doesn't help.
But when you look at the recruiting rankings, you won't find a whole lot of Gamecocks near the top. (That's obviously not including A'ja Wilson, the top player in the class of 2014, or Jataire White, #7 in that same class.) Perhaps that's more of a testament to Staley's overall coaching strategy, showing that she doesn't need a bunch of Top 50 or 100 recruits (many of whom head to UConn, Tennessee, Baylor, Notre Dame, etc.) to win. And the day may very well come when South Carolina might be mentioned in the same breath as those aforementioned programs by a high school girl looking to play at the next level.
But it says a lot when current players are transferring for the chance to become part of something special at USC. Take Sarah Imovbioh, one of the nation's top rebounders at Staley's alma mater of Virginia who will be automatically eligible in 2015-16 and will be an immediate force up front. Or former UNC standout Allisha Gray, the ACC's top scorer last year (15.2), and Georgia Tech ex-pat Kaela Davis, both eligible in 2016-17 and a pair of players that will be more than able to take on Tiffany Mitchell's scoring mantle once she graduates.
The tools are there. The program's getting more interest than it ever has. Next year's squad, which will be minus a pair of starters in Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam, shouldn't miss a beat with Imovbioh in the mix with top scorers Mitchell, Wilson and Alaina Coates. The expectation has never been higher for this program: to not just contend and get to Indianapolis next March, but to be the last team standing. Anything short of that, considering the pieces that remain from this past season's Final Four team, would be a disappointment.
But the way things are looking now, it'd be hard to bet against them.