It’s certainly a different world today in women’s basketball: for the first time since 2012, UConn is not the national champion. Gamecocks players and fans (especially the players) were certainly smiling this morning when they woke up and realized that Carolina had brought home the program’s first title.
While the team is set to celebrate with their fans later today, it will be time soon to go back to work for Dawn Staley as she and her staff takes a look back at a historic season and plot the path to holding up the trophy once more next year. How does the Gamecock roadmap look as they seek a repeat?
Not a whole lot is changing Who’s coming back?
I’ll admit that when it was announced that Alaina Coates was missing the entire tournament, I figured that the Gamecocks wouldn’t stand a huge chance of making it all the way to the championship. Watching them fall behind against Florida State in the Sweet 16 and Stanford in the national semifinal didn’t do much to make those feelings go away. But they showed me - and everyone else - that they were more than capable of overcoming the loss of their most dominant rebounder.
As of yesterday, A’ja Wilson, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray were set to be the key returnees, but with Davis and Gray forgoing their final years of eligibility to enter the WNBA Draft, that throws things in flux, and also means that Ty Harris and Bianca Cuevas-Moore will be looked upon to lead the charge in the backcourt. I’m interested in seeing the development of Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Doniyah Cliney; their roles were set to increase anyway, but will grow even more with Davis and Gray gone.
Don’t forget the additions
The above picture is a little surreal considering the player in blue is now playing for South Carolina. Alexis Jennings, a member of the Kentucky basketball team from 2014-2016, transferred in during the offseason and will be eligible in 2017-18 after having sat out this previous season. Not only does Jennings bring an immediate scoring touch (10 points per game in 2015-16 with the Wildcats) and rebounding prowess (7.1 rpg), she can use her height (6’3”) to attack inside and provide a complement to Wilson with Coates graduating. She won’t be the double-double machine that Coates was, but she might not need to be.
We’ll also see how the incoming freshmen factor into things as a decorated class in Elisia Grissett, Bianca Jackson, LaDazhia Williams and Haley Troup are set to fill some needs both short-term and longer-term when the seniors depart. The book on Jackson (the daughter of Alabama State’s men’s and women’s head coaches) is that she is a strong shooter that can give the Gamecocks that added dimension outside, while Grissett and Williams are being brought in as inside presences that can drive, finish in the paint and rebound in a Wilson/Coates mold. Troup, one of Alabama’s top players, brings several positives as she is not only a high-level scorer at guard, but a strong rebounder and distributor as well.
Way-too-early depth chart
Here’s what I’m thinking the lineup will be next year, considering if Staley sticks to a similar system she had in place when Coates was healthy:
F: A’ja Wilson/Alexis Jennings
G: Ty Harris/Mikiah Herbert Harrigan/Bianca Cuevas-Moore
Gray and Davis would have been the starters at guard, but with their decision to declare for the WNBA Draft, that opens things up for Harris to step into a starter’s role full-time. The freshmen are good enough in that they can push for big minutes, and while Cliney’s my first player off the bench (at least initially), the younger players, including the two rising sophomore guards in Araion Bradshaw and Victoria Patrick, should see some time. Staley could also add a pair of late signees - one in particular, high-scoring guard and former Southern Cal signee Destiny Littleton (who was granted a release from her NLI after head coach and former WNBA great Cynthia Cooper departed), is a player I’d keep my eye on.
The front court will look slightly different, but having Jennings in the lineup is a significant acquisition that lessens the blow of not having Coates next year.
Is a repeat for the Gamecocks that cut and dry? It’s very early, and I realize that outside factors will come into play, but I don’t think it is. I feel that Dawn Staley recognizes that as well and will look to keep her team grounded when the team reports this fall. UConn will certainly be back next year as an option and may be the trendy pick to win their fifth in six years. The usual top programs - Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford, Maryland, etc. - will be looking to get to the top, and, while we’re at it, let’s throw Mississippi State in that equation as I feel we haven’t seen the last of them in the Final Four.
Regardless, the standard has now been set for South Carolina women’s basketball. And now that championship #1 has been achieved, the work begins anew as they look to add a second one to the trophy case.