With four five-star recruits rated in ESPN's Top 100 including three McDonald's All-Americans and the nation's best player, Dawn Staley signed a 2014 class rated No. 2 nationally, which not coincidentally is where the Gamecocks are ranked in the preseason coming off an SEC Championship in 2014.
A huge part of that class is local product Kaydra Duckett, a 5-10 guard ranked No. 32 in ESPN's Top 100 players and a five-star recruit given a 97 rating overall.
A Dreher High School product, Duckett led her team to two state championships, was a two-time All-State player and led her team to a 118-13 record over her four years.
Serious about her commitment to take South Carolina to the next level, Duckett, a 5-10 guard, sat down with Gamecock Central last week to talk about her goals, her respect for head coach Dawn Staley and the future of the Gamecock program.
Gamecock Central: What was your recruiting process like? What was your jounrey?
Kaydra Duckett: My recruiting process was not long. It wasn't lengthy at all. I kind of knew this was where I wanted to be. I knew that the Carolina program was the program for me because the message they sent me.
One thing that stuck out to me was not only did they try to get a relationship with me, they wanted to make sure my parents were comfortable. That's what me and my mom were just talking about, that she could trust that I had three other mothers on campus with me who were going to take care of me.
Yes, I am around 19-, 20-, 21-year-old girls, but they also have me serve as mothers to us because it's a big transition from high school to college.
GC: At Dreher, you had a lot of success and the school has had a lot of success in the past in girl's basketball. How did being part of such a proud program help you develop?
Duckett: It did. Everybody used to talk about (former Dreher standout and Duke Blue Devil) Keturah Jackson. It's that thing where you kind of live in the shadows and play well enough to make sure that everyone remembers her name like they remember your name.
But all in all, (Dreher) coach (Teresa) Jones used to tell us all the time, "It's not about your name, it's about the name on the front of the jersey you wear." I think that's what has made Dreher basketball so good, because everyone understands that we're trying to win a state championship for the team, not for Kaydra Duckett or Keturah Jackson or whomever.
GC: I imagine those same expectations translate over to playing for South Carolina. What has the growth of the program under Dawn Staley?
Duckett: It really startled me, to be honest. When I committed, they weren't ranked as highly as they are now. I could just see them growing, I'd get little tweets and instant messages from people saying 'Your team is No. 10, congratulations!', and you'd say thanks, but it doesn't dawn on you that I was going to playing for potentially a national championship team until I saw them ranked number five in the country. I was like, "Hmmm...I'm going to actually be wearing that uniform. When A'ja (Wilson) committed and the preseason rankings put us at number two, I was like, "We're ranked number two and we haven't been past the Sweet 16?" That's when it dawned on me that it's about to be a lot harder.
Yes, it's going to be more fun, more fame and more notoriety, but it's going to much harder than I originally thought it would be."
GC: Well, one thing helping you there is you won't be alone. The recruiting class you're a part of, featuring three McDonald's All-Americans and four five-star recruits, including you, has to be exciting to come in with, right?
Duckett: This recruiting class not only is talented, it's a smart recruiting class. They're very conscious of what they can and can't do. They know how to win at the highest level and win the highest accolades. When you're a McDonald's All-American, state championships, you know Jatarie (White) has four state championships, these girls know how to win. When you surround yourself with people who know how to win, I don't see where you can go wrong.
GC: What about Dawn Staley drew you to her?
Duckett: Her as a person is her intensity, but what drew me to her was that I could call her. Even though she was recruiting me, I could call her and say, "Coach Staley, I had a hard practice at high school. What can I do to help get my team back to a state championship?" This was around the time we had lost and just won one my sophomore year but had lost in the third round my junior year. I knew that coach Staley knew a little something about making it to the Sweet 16 and then the following year lose before that.
I knew she could help me. I called her and said, "Coach, what can I do?," and she gave me pointers and tips. That's always been coach Staley. She's always a coach. And that's been my loyalty to her. If she dedicated the little bit of time in her busy schedule to make sure to talk to me, I don't see why I shouldn't go there because that's a woman that not only knows how to win, but that's a woman who knows how to coach someone and mentor someone to be a better young woman.
GC: Is this an exciting time for you right now?
Duckett: It is exciting. I'm anxious to get going and practicing in the Colonial Life Arena. Just a couple of months ago I was playing in front of an arena full of people playing in a state championship game, and then three months later I'm not practicing with that uniform on in an empty facility that will be potentially be packed once again with my new jersey.
So it's a bit nerve-wracking to be honest, but coach Staley, the coaching staff and the other girls are all behind us. The main focus for us is getting better all the time, and that's what we're here to do.