South Carolina's recruiting class for the upcoming season is small, with just two scholarship signees and two walk-ons. Yet it holds much more weight for the future of the program.
Simply, with the arrival of 6-foot-4 McDonald's All-American Alaina Coates, the Gamecocks finally have the chance to do what they never could in the first five years of coach Dawn Staley's tenure. They can play big.
"We never had that option, but it is an option out there that we have been thinking about," Staley said last week. "We've discussed it during our coaches' meetings, and we're not afraid to do that. It depends somewhat on Alaina coming in and being ready to take on that responsibility, but also, Aleighsa (Welch has) got to be able to play a little more perimeter than she's played in the last two years."
Don't get Staley wrong - she loves what her team has accomplished over the past two years, posting back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and continuing to improve the program's SEC win total, along with winning a combined 50 games. The forwards that she had - Ashley Bruner, Charenee Stephens, Welch - played much bigger than their 6-foot heights suggested, turning the Gamecocks into a relentless team on the boards and one that got a lot of points on putbacks.
But USC's offense, especially last year, often flagged and couldn't put up the points to reward its lockdown defense. Running out of a three-guard set most of the time, the Gamecocks simply didn't have a consistent half-court approach to get the ball to the bigs, and had to take what they could get.
Although USC only lost eight games a year ago, it was the same problem that occurred in six of them. The Gamecocks won 25 games without a certified big, but when they played a team that had a certified big, that big would often be the key component to a win.
In USC's losses to Stanford, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas A&M (twice) and Missouri, the opponent's big was always the leading scorer. The Gamecocks couldn't stop them, and especially in the Stanford and Georgia defeats, they missed a multitude of point-blank shots that could have meant victory.
Bruner, Stephens and Welch were integral parts of the past two seasons, playing inside when they may have been more comfortable on the wings. They had to play on the blocks because there was nobody else to do it, and they often did well, but Staley knew that she was rather hamstrung in terms of offense. There was just no telling what would happen in a designed play for a forward, although Welch really stepped up her game last year.
With Stephens gone two years ago and Bruner departed from last year, Welch enters her junior season as a focal point of the offense. She'll have help from 6-3 Elem Ibiam, and backup help from 6-3 Wilka Montout. But Coates, the freshman, will also be around, giving Staley the option of playing the traditional two-guard, three-big lineup.
If Coates comes in and handles the system right away, it's feasible to think that she'll be in the middle with Ibiam and Welch on either side for the first game. Welch can range more to the perimeter and show off her improving jumper, while Ibiam, who has played two fantastic postseasons in her two previous years, will be available for putbacks and rebounds.
As Staley said, she can't consider it a definite yet because Coates hasn't enrolled yet, and thus hasn't been in the workouts. But she was recruited for a reason, and Welch and Ibiam have taken control of the summer workouts.
"Elle is one that's well-respected by her teammates," Staley said. "She's not as vocal as Aleighsa, but when she talks, it's like E.F. Hutton ("when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen"). It's a great thing. You've got a tale of two different heads when it comes to Elle and Aleigsha. Those two have been selected as our summer captains. It's fitting."
And if Coates proves as dominant in college as she was at Dutch Fork High School, she'll play often and give the Gamecocks a multi-dimensional offensive look that they haven't had the past two years. It could be just what USC needs to break through into the elite level of the national spotlight.
"Ashley was that for us, where she could float in the post and on the perimeter, and we're working on Aleighsa to do some of those things," Staley said. "(The three-big) is a lineup that you'll see, most definitely."
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