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December 14, 2010

COMMENTARY: Staley Deals With Another Loss

"Only the strong survive."
-------------- JERRY BUTLER

Dawn Staley isn't blind. She knows how her program is being viewed right now, following the departure of the second Top-10 recruit in less than a year.

But what was she supposed to have done?

"For me, you've got to look at my history," Staley said, politely but firmly, after South Carolina beat NC State on Sunday in the first game since freshman forward Kayla Brewer left the team. "You can't judge me by a player leaving last year and a player leaving this year. If you can just talk to other people who have played under me, they know what type of situation this is. And sometimes you can't reach every kid."

By all accounts, that's what happened with Brewer, who was a top recruit but was only 17 after graduating high school early to come to USC. Brewer, who confirmed by phone that leaving was solely her decision but would not comment further, was said by sources around the program that she was overwhelmed with the adjustment to college and felt that some time off, and a new destination afterward, would be the best choice.

"It had been building for the past two weeks. I think she had reservations about staying," Staley said. "I really don't know, but you can look at it like with her being 17, she's very mature for her age. She's one that very well could have been one of our captains in the future. I really looked at her like that. But I really can't pinpoint what it is that would cause her to make the leap to transfer."

It happens. Kids get to college, away from home for the first time, and some don't handle it well. USC is no different from any other school in that regard.

Where the difference lies is it came nine months after Kelsey Bone, a program-changing recruit, also left school. Bone had a productive first season at USC and was a building block for the future, yet departed in much the same way as Brewer, Staley saying the player would feel happier somewhere else.

Bone stepped right in and played well while Brewer was struggling. Although she averaged 13.9 minutes per game, she only had 1.3 points and 3.1 rebounds. With the Gamecocks' thin depth in the post, Brewer most definitely would have received steady playing time this season, but no one knows if she would have developed into the projections set for her.

Brewer wasn't happy, and Staley had no choice. Either keep a player that doesn't want to play for USC by refusing to grant a transfer, or bend the rules in an attempt to make the player happy and risk alienating the rest of the team.

Unfortunately for Staley, Brewer's departure so soon after Bone's was horribly bad timing.

"Bad timing, bad that it happened last year, but overall, I want our kids happy," Staley said. "If it's here at the University of South Carolina or somewhere else, I want them to have happiness in their heart. If we can't provide that here, I will be happy to send them to a place where they could find happiness."

Players quickly find out, when they come to Staley's program, that more is expected of them. It's obviously not going to be the golden treatment of the recruiting cycle; once they're on campus, it's time to work.

Most players attend a practice if they're visiting USC while on a recruiting trip, so they should at least have some idea of what they're getting into should they choose the Gamecocks. I can tell you from the practices I've attended that Staley is a tough-as-nails coach, demanding perfection on every play, drill or contest and rather vocal about it when she doesn't see it.

"For us, as a coaching staff, I feel real good about how we interact with our kids," Staley said. "I think if you let the process work, let the process work, the end result will be a young lady that developed into a very successful young lady, if you let the process work."

See that? The same phrase mentioned three times in one blip of my tape recorder?

This is the system. Take it or leave it. Many have taken it and developed into solid players; two have decided it wasn't for them and left.

I can understand how tough it may be. Our videographer, Roger Olivieri, brought up an interesting point when he and I talked about Brewer leaving. A longtime basketball fan, Rog brought up Michael Jordan when he took over as an executive for the Washington Wizards, and later became a player as well.

No one will ever question Jordan's credentials as an elite player. Plenty question his credentials as an executive. The public snipings toward teammates at Washington and the way he handled his relationships were often ridiculous and accomplished nothing.

As Rog said, when you've been a player so head-and-shoulders above the rest, and then you attempt to build other players in your mold, you simply can't understand why players can't do the things you used to do so well.

Staley is that kind of coach. She can be ruthlessly hard, especially on her point guards, because she was the Jordan of women's basketball. Recruits still credit her career as reasons that they come to USC or are intrigued enough to visit USC, because the way she could make a basketball do everything but sit up and dance was as memorable as watching Jordan do what he did for so long.

Having Staley coach you as a point guard is difficult. By her own admission, Staley rode freshman Ieasia Walker extremely tough last year, because she knew Walker could be an excellent player. Walker bore the criticisms, went home to New York over the summer, got better and returned as a much more complete player, able to play both guard spots and still score, as evidenced by her team-high 12.3 points per game.

Staley built a winner at Temple with the same approach, and she is attempting to do the same at USC. Another highly ranked recruiting class (12th by Blue Star Basketball and 23rd by ESPN HoopGurlz) has already been signed for next season and while Brewer's departure hurts the Gamecocks in body -- USC only has three post options remaining, increasing the dependence on a guard-heavy rotation -- they feel equipped to handle it.

Sometimes it's just not in the cards to work. Take a look at Tennessee. Within the past year, two Lady Vols have gone elsewhere -- Amber Gray, a McDonald's All-American, transferred to Xavier while Faith Dupree, an honorable mention All-American, went to Tennessee-Chattanooga. I'm not foolish enough to suggest that USC is on the same page as Tennessee, but the message Staley is sending is the same as Pat Summitt's.

This is the way it's going to be. The approach works and will work. If Staley had the wins that Summitt does, the program would probably never notice the departure. But she doesn't, so she has to deal with the perception.

"You don't really see it, so yes, it looks bad," Staley said. "But when you sift through everything, sometimes it just doesn't work out."

Losing a player hurt. Losing a top recruit hurt more. Losing two top recruits in so short of a time span has left the program with a black eye.

But it will heal. Staley won't be changing her style. The players that stick to it will reap the reward.

"I sleep well at night, knowing my history," Staley said. "Just look at my history and the players that have played under me. Once you let the process work for you, they turn out all right. They turn out to be positive citizens of this world. Sometimes it just doesn't work out, for one reason or another."



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