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April 24, 2012

WBB: Wrapping Up, Part I



VIDEO: Dawn Staley


First of a two-part series looking at USC women's basketball

Don't get Dawn Staley wrong, or think that she doesn't realize what she's saying.

The group of seniors that is leaving South Carolina was a tight-knit, talented, scrappy bunch. Ten years down the road, the group of five that left everything it had on the floor in Fresno, Calif., as the Gamecocks ended their season in the Sweet 16 will be remembered as the quintet that started it all.

Cannot replace the grittiness and never-say-die spirit of La'Keisha Sutton, Markeisha Grant, Courtney Newton, Charenee Stephens and Ebony Wilson. Cannot replace how each could anticipate the other's moves, how each gave up individual glories for the good of the team, how each fought through so much to arrive at what they always knew was their destiny - a season of firsts, culminating in a 25-10 NCAA tournament year.

Those five were so integral to the past year's success, especially the way they kept the team together and pointed forward after a couple of major hits - departures of high-ranking recruits - threatened to undo all of the good that Staley was doing. Those five leave such a void in terms of experience and the way that Staley wants her game plans, practices and locker-room meetings executed.

But the group that Staley is bringing in to fill the holes vacated is so, so good. No, it doesn't fill the vacancy of experience and hard-nosed play of the departed. In raw talent, though, it's there.

"If you look at our game against Stanford (in the Sweet 16), I don't think Stanford out-played us," Staley said. "I think Stanford out-talented us. The four guards that we already have said, they bring a wealth of talent. Whether they're able to be as successful consistently, time will only tell with that. But certainly, they can make plays."

That's not a knock or an insult. Really. Staley deals in absolutes and while this class of five seniors meant so much to restoring the program to success, the incoming class of four guards (which could swell to six overall players, the final two being posts) has so much raw talent that it can be an almost seamless transition.

Almost because there's really no telling how any college freshman adjusts to life after high school. Almost because after losing players who knew how to deal with Staley, how to approach practices and games, that has to be re-taught to a new class.

Yet Staley is certain that it will work. It's worked so many other times, and this is the system that she thought - that she knew - would work at USC.

"If one (recruit) has an off night, the other ones are more than talented to pick up more than they left off," Staley said. "But we're bringing some players back too, like Ieasia (Walker) and Ashley (Bruner), and Tina Roy's pretty good. Some of the other players that we felt needed another year, to feel out that year, they have a year in."

Walker, Bruner and Sancheon White (who transferred in from junior college last year) will be the team's only seniors. There are currently no juniors. It's why it's crucial that the freshmen do come in and play to their ability right away, so that when the three seniors are gone, Staley will have a precocious bunch of young talent in place, all among the sophomore and junior classes, to win and keep winning.

The class is four guards - Tiffany Davis, Tiffany Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions. Some have labeled Sessions as the best athlete - period - in Grand Strand history. Dozier helped build a dynasty just down the road at Spring Valley High School. Davis and Mitchell come in with all sorts of rankings and pedigrees.

Staley is looking to add two post players to the class, and is currently looking at some JUCO prospects, to keep things as traditional as possible. With a lack of significant height - Elem Ibiam is the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-3, but she played less than eight minutes per game last year - USC is down to Bruner and Welch, each 6-0, as their best options on the blocks. One of those gets hurt, USC would either have to play unexperienced forwards or go with a five-guard lineup.

"When you look at who we're bringing back, we're losing Courtney, we're losing Charenee," Staley said. "That leaves three post players in Elem and Ashley and Aleighsa. If something happened to one of them, it would be hard to keep that rotation. We like to keep it as traditional as possible. Most teams have traditional post players."

With the memory of a tremendously successful season intact, now is about moving forward. The Gamecocks will schedule aggressively next season, as they did this year, to make sure the team realizes that the best competition will come in the NCAA tournament - which is now an expectation instead of a hope.

Part of that is recognizing what the last team accomplished and what the future team will accomplish. Yes, it hurts to watch a group that had so much chemistry and eventual success walk away, but it's the price of the game.

The five left a building block. Staley aims to keep building instead of watching the foundation crumble.

"I think a lot of times, those players sacrificed for the good of our basketball team," Staley said. "They didn't have to take over, because there was so much talent around them.

"They will be missed, but we are extremely excited that they have begun something special here at South Carolina."

COMING ON WEDNESDAY A breakdown of the 2012-13 roster, scheduling and looking around at the SEC.

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