With apologies to Peter King, Five Things I think I Think looking ahead following the Gamecocks' loss to North Carolina.
The Sweet Sixteen loss was disappointing
Let's make no mistake about it. Over the course of the season, South Carolina was a better team than North Carolina, but when it counted the Tar Heels made the plays. North Carolina was probably the best four-seed in the field (Maryland might disagree), and deserved better. The Tar Heels also had the best player in the bracket in Diamond DeShields. In the big picture, this is a positive. This was no fluke upset to Kansas. It was two very good teams going toe-to-toe.
UConn and Notre Dame are better
Shoot, I'm convinced Stanford would have beaten the Gamecocks. But the point is South Carolina is not an elite program yet. The Gamecocks are bubbling right under, but they weren't going to win a championship this year. This is still a program in progress. They need to get to the Sweet Sixteen next year, and looking ahead, even that would probably be a disappointment. The key right now is to keep the momentum of the program going.
Looking for reasons for optimism, two seasons ago, South Carolina made the Sweet Sixteen. Then, it felt like a culmination. This year, it feels like a letdown. What changed? The 2012 team was senior laden, led by seniors Lakeisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant. This year's team has one senior, little-used Wilka Montout, and returns everyone else. When the 2012 team lost to Stanford, even Dawn Staley said they lost because of lack of talent. When the 2013 team lost in the second round, it was still validation for what Staley had built. This year, the Gamecocks have as much talent as anyone, and with the fourth-ranked recruiting class they should get even better. Impatience has set in. Tiffany Mitchell is only the second sophomore to win SEC Player of the Year. Alaina Coates got better as the year went on, and Aleighsa Welch has another year left. The Gamecocks will be better next year.
The Gamecocks faced a unique disadvantage before the tournament even started. Due to the presence of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds, South Carolina was ineligible to host NCAA Tournament games. Of the top sixteen seeded teams in the tournament, only three did not get to play at home. #4 Nebraska was upset by #12 BYU before hosting the regional, and #2 West Virginia was upset by host LSU. While all but one other top four seed had a home date on its docket, the Gamecocks spent two weeks on the west coast, three thousand miles from home. No amount of political rhetoric can deny this was a disadvantage. Fortunately, it all becomes moot next year when the opening rounds will be merit-based and South Carolina can host again.
A'ja Wilson isn't Kelsey Bone
South Carolina has the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class. Land A'ja Wilson, and it may be the top-ranked class. Staley has been in the running for an elite recruit before. In 2009, she lured the nation's No. 2 recruit, Kelsey Bone, to Columbia. Staley needed to sign Bone to get noticed, and it backfired when Bone transferred after her freshman year. Without getting into details, Bone was a bad fit for the team-first program and while her loss hurt, the Gamecocks were better off in the long run. Wilson has none of Bone's baggage and if she signs with USC, it is confirmation Staley has built a program to contend with the elites. The Gamecocks would immediately become a favorite to make the Final Four next year. If Wilson goes elsewhere, it is confirmation that while Staley can recruit with the elites, and she can't get every player. The main thing is that the Gamecocks have already signed a great class. There are not too many programs that can say that a player of Wilson's caliber is icing on the cake, rather than the entire meal.