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November 11, 2010

W HOOPS: Season Preview

NO. 5 XAVIER MUSKETEERS (0-0)
at
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (0-0)

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: None
Tickets: Available at the box office
Xavier's probable starters: G Special Jennings 5-6 Sr. (8.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G Tyeasha Moss 5-9 Jr. (8.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Katie Rutan 5-8 So. (8.8 ppg, 1.4 rpg); F Amber Harris 6-5 Sr. (16.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg); C Ta'Shia Phillips 6-6 Sr. (13.9 ppg, 11.7 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Samone Kennedy 5-4 Sr. (5.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G La'Keisha Sutton 5-9 Jr. (9.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg); G Marah Strickland 6-0 Jr. (8.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 So. (2.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Jewel May 6-1 Sr. (2.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina opens coach Dawn Staley's third season. ... Each team won its exhibition game last week. ... The Musketeers went to the Elite Eight last season and have won the Atlantic-10 four years in a row. ... Xavier leads the all-time series 1-0, winning 70-65 in the 2006 WNIT. ... USC is relatively healthy, with Valerie Nainima indefinitely out while recovering from knee surgery and Courtney Newton doing the same. There is a chance Newton could suit up tonight. ... The Gamecocks will play three games in its first week, all at home.
*Note: Scoring averages are from last season. Strickland's are from two years ago, when she was at Maryland and then transferred.
Next game: South Carolina hosts Illinois at 7 p.m. on Monday.

This was supposed to be the first real season that Dawn Staley had a chance. From a first season of inheriting an almost-bare cupboard that became an injury-marred campaign, to the second year of getting talent and watching it grow up, Season Three was going to be the one for Staley to sit back and watch it all happen.

South Carolina still has a chance this year, a good chance, to be the team that breaks through into the successful campaigns that Staley was used to as a Virginia player and Temple coach. But it will do so only if it can conquer two severe steps back that occurred during the offseason.

Yet, Staley feels that the program is in better shape to deal with problems, and is in a unique position to become stronger because of it.

"Let's not forget who's here," she pointed out during the preseason. "We do have some talented players who are really ready to step up for the challenge of scoring some points."

The loss of program-changing recruit Kelsey Bone stung, no doubt about it. Bone was everything she was supposed to be in her first season, averaging 14 points and 9.2 rebounds on her way to one of the two SEC Freshman of the Year prizes. The 6-foot-5 Texan decided to leave, though, going back to her native state to play for Texas A&M.

Combined with the non-qualifying of 6-4 recruit Brittany Webb, Bone's departure left USC almost non-existent in the post. USC's tallest players are 6-1, meaning they have no one to establish any dominance in the paint on either side.

Still, the Gamecocks have speed, and lots of it. A guard-oriented roster, led by leading returning scorer Valerie Nainima, can make up for the loss of a post presence by running circles around the opposition. There were several times last year where Bone and her opposing center would be plodding down the court as the other eight players were at the other end, and USC can see a situation where it can work five to 10 five-on-four scenarios per game.

Then Nainima went down with an ACL tear in July. She immediately had surgery and has recovered very quickly, but will likely not see the court until at least January. The Gamecocks are beginning their season on Friday against the country's fifth-ranked team, minus nearly 48 percent of their scoring from last year.

But Staley likes what she sees. The speed of her team has vastly improved. She has several players who may not score 15 points per game, but can get eight or 10. There will be no dependence on one or two players to do all of the scoring as the season begins, and if Nainima can come back as good as she was, that will be one more weapon added to the arsenal.

The schedule is tough. The SEC will most likely be controlled by Tennessee and Kentucky, but the rest is wide-open. The roster is young but enthusiastic. Staley will see much more of an extension of herself on the floor, with so many guards who are capable of doing what she did as a player.

"We're going to have to change our look a little bit," Staley said. "We've got to do it a lot of different ways."

A lot of ways that could translate into a multi-faceted attack, that produces a lot of wins.

ROSTER

Imani Sellers (G, 5-8, So.) Added to the team before the exhibition game, Sellers is a walk-on that impressed enough to get a shot. Will probably struggle for minutes, but if she can take advantage of the minutes she gets, she could be a backup for one of the several guards that USC will rotate.

Ebony Wilson (G, 5-8, Jr.) A player that averaged 9.2 minutes per game last year but never much got into the scoring column, Wilson was always a fourth or fifth option if Bone, Nainima or La'Keisha Sutton were on the floor. Yet, she doesn't play like she's 5-8. Could be a huge boon in rebounding this year and can score when given the chance. Wilson had 10 points and seven rebounds in the exhibition.

Ieasia Walker (G, 5-8, So.) Could be the most improved player on the roster. Staley was especially hard on her last year because she saw so much of herself in the then-freshman. Walker can score, create her own shot and handle the ball if need be, although she'll be more of a two than on the point. She and Sutton could become the best backcourt in the league, and if Nainima comes back at full strength, that's a deadly three-pronged attack.

Samone Kennedy (G, 5-4, Sr.) Usually doesn't score much, but runs the point and can pop a clutch shot. Kennedy did nothing to lose the point role during the offseason and if she can cut down on her turnovers, will be an even more valuable asset. Kennedy had 68 assists last year and she, as well as the team, will have to get used to no more Bone in the center. A 6-5 center can correct a lot of bad passes inside, but that option is not there this year.

Markeisha Grant (G, 5-6, Jr.) Staley found Grant at College of Central Florida and saw what she wanted to see -- a savvy, experienced guard who, like the others, can do it all. Grant scored 10 points in the exhibition, breaking the team's 3-point drought with two long-range shots from her favorite spot, the right corner. A very quick player who can give Kennedy a break in ball-handling, or spell Walker or Sutton at the two.

Kayla Brewer (F, 6-0, Fr.) A high-profile recruit who graduated high school a year early, Brewer may find it difficult in her first year. She'll face an obviously much stiffer competitive scale and will be asked to bang around in the lane with a lot of players that are taller and heavier than her. Brewer won't be 18 until March (although she is academically a college junior, thanks to an accelerated high-school study load), but will be asked to grow up much quicker. She averaged 16 points and 15 boards during her last year of high-school ball and the Gamecocks need a rebounder, plus someone to throw to on the block.

La'Keisha Sutton (G, 5-9, Jr.) A solid and sometimes spectacular player who has averaged 10.4 points for her career, Sutton is a fighter who gets more competitive as the close games wind. She will be relied on to parlay her experience and leadership to the newbies on the team, especially with Nainima out, and hit the big shot. Sutton has a good jumper and a better move to the basket, and has never been hesitant about battling for loose balls. She's who you want next to you in the proverbial foxhole.

Charenee Stephens (F, 6-1, Jr.) Maybe the best option USC has in the post, simply because Stephens doesn't back down from anyone. A bruiser who has learned how to play hard and effectively (although foul trouble is still a concern), Stephens will scrap for a loose ball and be the kind of forceful presence the Gamecocks need in the lane. She played a marvelous exhibition, scoring 10 points with nine boards and two blocks, and what she gives up in height is countered by a mean streak that is crucial in March.

Ashley Bruner (F, 6-0, So.) Will play a much more increased role this year as someone with height who can score. Bruner started the exhibition and finished one point short of a double-double (nine, with 13 rebounds). She needs to improve a bit on getting the ball on the block and taking it up, but she is already very proficient at putbacks. The Gamecocks need somebody who can consistently score from the post; Bruner may be the answer.

Courtney Newton (G, 5-10, Jr.) Has a solid outside shot and can drain the 3-pointer, but the question is her health. Newton has been dogged with constant knee problems throughout her career, suffering another torn ACL last year. She has had three surgeries on her right knee and one on her left, while also sustaining four concussions during her college career. Newton has always had an infectious will to bounce back and has been participating in light practice drills, but did not play in the exhibition. Is valuable due to her leadership and presence, and may be able to contribute some minutes this season.

Marah Strickland (G, 6-0, Jr.) A transfer from Maryland that sat out last year, Strickland was regarded as a shooting specialist as a Terrapin and as a practice player for USC last season. She made the preseason All-SEC second team despite never having played a game in the league, and could be the answer to who will bear the load of the scoring this season. Her exhibition was spotty -- Strickland scored nine points but went 3-of-12 from the field, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range. She hasn't played against live competition in a year, though, so her game should flourish.

Valerie Nainima (G, 5-5, Sr.) The Gamecocks' best scoring option last year, Nainima starred from the first game as someone who could create, hit from inside or out and provide the spark that a team needs when it's fighting uphill in the waning seconds. When Nainima wanted to score, she would score -- it was that simple. It's an unusual situation with her injury -- because she already used her redshirt season when she transferred from Long Island, she can't get another or hope to get a medical. It's this year or nothing, and Staley says she won't rush Nainima back because there is professional potential to consider. That being said, Nainima is well ahead of schedule on her recovery, already walking with no brace, crutch or limp. To be safe, USC will probably keep her out until the SEC season begins in January, and even then, it's no guarantee that Nainima will return or be the player she was. Still, there is a strong chance that she will do both.

Jewel May (F, 6-1, Sr.) A starter on the block, May is one of the team's few seniors and is battle-tested. She'll be asked to do as much as she can in the post this year, which may drastically fluctuate from game to game. She has only averaged 3.4 points for her career, but provides a presence on the floor. Very calm under pressure and able to play physically, May understands the game and can impart that to her teammates when the adrenaline is pumping. In the exhibition, May only had one point and four fouls, but blocked a shot and collected seven rebounds.

SCHEDULE

Staley set up a small piece of the schedule anticipating she would have Bone, but only a small piece. The rest was constructed as competitive as last year's, because she wants to give the Gamecocks a taste of what they could face in March.

"I want to show them that if we get to the tournament, there is a whole new level of basketball outside the SEC," Staley said. "We will play some good teams in conference, but if we get to the tournament, we wouldn't face an SEC team unless we won a few games."

Xavier, the fifth-ranked team in the country in the preseason, comes to Columbia on Friday to open the season. The first road game is at Penn State, which received one vote in the poll. A two-game trip to California, designed to give Nainima a chance to play in front of her family, includes a game at No. 3 Stanford.

NC State got 28 votes in the poll and comes to USC on Dec. 12. The Gamecocks will again play No. 15 North Carolina in Myrtle Beach. And then comes the SEC.

USC will play No. 4 Tennessee and No. 9 Kentucky twice apiece, as well as two games against No. 19 Georgia and one against No. 24 Vanderbilt. LSU, which is ranked 26th in the preseason poll, takes up another two spots on the schedule.

KEYS

The Gamecocks will be small. There is no four-inch growth spurt that will happen overnight. They will try and counter that by running four-guard sets, perhaps five-guard sets during games, although they will most likely continue to start two bigs with three guards.

"It's no secret that we're a smaller team for the SEC, but with that being said, we're also one of the more athletic teams," May said. "That's what we're bringing to the table. Where we give up those inches, we can kind of overcome it with our athleticism and ability to jump and agility."

At this point, USC has no go-to scorer, which is good and bad. They will have to find, perhaps by trial and error, someone to take the big shot. But, opponents won't know who to guard or double-down on in those situations, which gives the Gamecocks an advantage.

"We are a guard-oriented team," Strickland said. "We have a lot of great drivers, a lot of excellent shooters, so it's just going to be a lot of fun to watch us out there this year."

USC, as height-depleted as it is, will have to find a way to get rebounds. Some of that comes from being a great boxing-out team, but much of it is having the ability to get underneath the basket and not necessarily out-jump, but out-push the opponent for the ball. There will be very rough games rebounding the basketball this year, simply because USC does not have a tall, great jumper to rely on.

"That's going to be a work in progress for us all season long," Staley said. "We don't really have a dominant big person. I'm pleased with our post players and what they're doing, boxing out. It's the guards -- they're giving up a lot of offensive rebounds."

In its exhibition win against Lander, USC out-rebounded the Bearcats 56-25. Lander is filled with the same kind of roster -- all guards -- and the game was a 40-minute fast break.

Staley doesn't want to run the same kind of loot-and-shoot offense (Lander stole an incredible 22 balls) but wants to have that same kind of speed. If the Gamecocks do give up an underneath basket, she already wants two or three of her guards at the timeline, ready to receive a long pass. The half-court offense, until the Gamecocks find a reliable shooter, will also be a work in progress as the guards find a way to work with their smaller, less lengthy post players.

But USC has talent. In women's basketball, where there are perhaps 20 dominant programs in the country, getting talent is the biggest key. Staley had a setback with Bone's departure and an injury to Nainima, but she has Sutton, Grant, Walker, Strickland, Bruner, Wilson and the emerging Brewer.

There may be some rough spots, but the plan is to stick through the aggressive schedule, spring a few upsets, defend the home court and be bidding for a dance ticket once the SEC tournament comes around. This is the most complete team that Staley has had at USC, with several capable options to keep it from being a one- or two-woman show.

"I think sometimes you gain by losing, and I'm hoping this is an instance where we gain," Staley said. "We're a tighter-knit group than we were in the past two years, so that should account for something.

"We have several players who can and will play for us. It's a good problem to have, finding room for all of them. We just have to go play now."

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