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June 3, 2014

Wilson aboard, Staley eyes Final Four



DESTIN, Fla. -- After a pair of Sweet 16 appearances in the past three seasons, the next step logically for the South Carolina women's basketball team is earning a spot in the Elite Eight.

Dawn Staley, though, wants more.

With A'ja Wilson, a Heathwood Hall product and the nation's top prospect for the 2014 signing class, on board beginning next season, Staley hungers to skip a step on her program's climb to the mountaintop.

Elite Eight? Heck, no. Staley is eying the rarefied air of the Final Four.

"We're moving into a direction we've never been," Staley told Gamecock Central recently in Destin, Fla., during the SEC spring meetings. "We have talent, we have experience, we have players who are selfless and want to do bigger things than what this program has been able to do so far.

Wilson's presence on a talented roster that returns all but one player next season offers USC genuine hope of advancing to the Final Four in Tampa next March.

"We're looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to winning the national championship," Staley said. "I keep saying it, but that's what we want to do in our program. Not saying this lightly, but we hope to skip over a step (Elite Eight). We have put together a roster full of players we feel we can challenge and compete for the national championship with.

"I want that to be our target. If we try to strive for the next step, which is the Elite Eight, that's all we'll probably get. We want to vie for national championships and we feel we have the roster that can accomplish that."

Happily, the women's tournament is abandoning pre-determined sites for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in favor of a baseball-style merit system in which the top 16 seeds host four-team regionals, giving the Gamecocks the opportunity to finally host tournament games at Colonial Life Arena.

Hopefully, the not-so-long-ago days of USC capturing the outright SEC regular season title with a 14-2 record and earning a No. 1 seed, and then getting shipped 3,000 miles to Seattle are over.

Unsurprisingly, the 6-foot-5 Wilson carries enormous expectations on her short journey from her Columbia home to the USC campus. ESPN women's basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli compared the impact of her signing to that of a former Gamecock football player, exclaiming, "This is the equivalent of Jadeveon Clowney to USC in football."

Staley concurred with the stratospheric comparison.

"It was really important for us to make sure A'ja Wilson stayed at home," Staley said. "She is a household name in our state and certainly she was that in high school by what she was able to do on the floor. She captured the national audience by committing to us on a national stage.

"A lot of people look up to her. She is the Jadeveon Clowney type. She is the Stephon Gilmore type. Even Bruce Ellington, where fans really embraced him. Our future is bright with A'ja Wilson in our lineup."

Only senior Wilka Montout, who averaged 1.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.5 minutes per games this past season, has exited, so Wilson joins an experienced roster overflowing with talent.

With her size and skill, Wilson should have a powerful presence in the post next season. But she is also talented enough to step out and knock down perimeter jumpers. As a result, Staley doesn't intend to keep Wilson in one spot.

"We're going to move A'ja around," Staley said. "A'ja is going to play on the perimeter. Hopefully, we can take advantage of her skills when we insert her into the post play."

Remember, even without Wilson, the Gamecocks won 29 games this past season, second most in school history (30 in 1979-80), while the .853 winning percentage (29-5) established a new school mark. USC has won 25 or more games each of the last three seasons.

Moreover, USC's recruiting class was already rated No. 4 nationally before Wilson signed her letter of intent with Doniyah Cliney (Newark, N.J.), Bianca Cuevas (Bronx, N.Y.), Kaydra Duckett (Columbia) and Jatarie White (Charlotte, N.C.) signing in the fall.

The lengthy list of returning players includes All-America guard Tiffany Mitchell, just the second sophomore in SEC history to capture conference Player of the Year honors, rising senior Aleighsa Welch (first-team All-SEC by league's coaches in 2013-14), SEC Freshman of the Year Alaina Coates, SEC shot block leader Elem Ibiam and local product Asia Dozier.

USC could start a frontcourt consisting of Wilson (6-5), Coates (6-4) and Ibiam (6-4) next season, giving the Gamecocks one of the tallest and most athletic front lines in women's college basketball.

White, rated the No. 7 player and top center nationally for the 2014-15 signing class, stands 6-foot-4 and possesses offensive and defensive skills that rivals Wilson.

Final Four flair? Perhaps.

"We'll pass the bus test, if you will, because when we get off the bus, we'll have A'ja Wilson, Jatarie White, Alaina Coates and Elem," Staley said. "We'll probably be one of the biggest teams in the country. We're going to utilize our length to our advantage."

Wilson gets a head start on preparations for her much-anticipated college debut in November by earning a spot on the 12-member 2014 USA U18 National Team announced in late May. The team will compete in the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 championships at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., from Aug. 6-10.

Wilson's head coach on Team USA? Staley, a three-time Olympic Gold medalist.

"I was very fortunate that A'ja Wilson did make the team," Staley smiled. "I get a chance to work with her. She is as every bit what I thought she would be as far as being a good teammate and being able to take over in certain situations in a game. She is very versatile. I get a head start working with her and I'm looking forward to it."

Staley will also serve as an assistant coach under Geno Auriemma, the acclaimed UConn head coach, for the top national team scheduled to compete at the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, from Sept. 27-Oct. 5.

"I am elated to work with the U18 USA team," said Staley, who confirmed a future home-and-home series with UConn. "They are truly impressionable. Our game is in a safe place because we had 29 wonderful kids. Unfortunately, only 12 get to go. But our future is bright in women's basketball."

NOTES:

-- The SEC announced in Destin the 2016 Women's Basketball Tournament will be held in Jacksonville, Fla. The 2015 tournament is set for North Little Rock, Ark.




DM


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