WBB: USC begins Paradise Jam

What: U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, first round
When: 1:15 p.m. today
Where: U.V.I. Sport & Fitness Center, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
TV: None
Tickets: Available at the box office
Hampton's probable starters: G Nicole Hamilton 5-8 Jr. (13.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Kenia Cole 5-4 So. (6.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg); F Keiara Avant 5-11 Sr. (22.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg); F Alyssa Bennett 6-2 Jr. (11.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg); C Verdine Warner 6-6 So. (5.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (10.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (6.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (12.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (10.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (14.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina plays in its first tournament since 2009-10, when it was also at the Paradise Jam and finished 1-2. … The first meeting between the two schools. … Mitchell is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week. … Walker became the 50th Gamecock to play in 100 career games against Clemson. … USC leads the SEC in rebounding margin. … Three of the 25 games under coach Dawn Staley where the Gamecocks have scored 70 or more points have come in the first four games of this year. … USC's first game since learning that Tiffany Davis is out for the year with a knee injury. The Gamecocks have nine players. … The Gamecocks received four votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25 and 38 votes in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25.
Next game: USC plays Florida Gulf Coast in the second round of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam at 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
This is the kind of schedule that Dawn Staley likes. Three games, three days, against solid competition on a neutral floor.
It mimics what Staley hopes her team will be seeing in March.
"Any time you can simulate playing in the SEC tournament, it's a good thing," Staley said in an e-mail before she and South Carolina left for the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. "It's hard, but it's a good test for us with good competition. All the teams we're playing against this week played in the NCAA tournament, so it's a tournament-tested event. I'm looking forward to seeing how our team responds."
The Gamecocks (4-0), riding their best start under Staley, will play Hampton (4-0) today, then Florida Gulf Coast (2-1) and DePaul (3-1) over the next two days. The Lady Pirates are off to their best start since joining Division I in 1995, and while always a strong program - they've won three straight MEAC championships - they gained notice recently by beating two SEC schools in five days.
Hampton whipped a rebuilding Mississippi State team but then topped a strong LSU squad, raising some eyebrows as perhaps a program to not only get to the NCAA tournament, but do some damage once it's there. Forward Keiara Avant is averaging a double-double and the Pirates are trying to show they can scuttle the other teams in an abroad tournament.
Staley's team has been scoring points in bunches, but is facing a thin bench for the rest of the season. While injured guards Tiffany Davis and Tina Roy each traveled with the team (along with the medically disqualified Shelbretta Ball), the Gamecocks can only suit up nine players. They're used to playing all nine anyway, but now somebody else has to fill the void left by Davis.
"Everybody has to step up," forward Aleighsa Welch recently said. "I think with any injury, anytime somebody's out, it just means that everybody has to step up their game a notch. We're going to need everybody to do a little bit more to get where we need to be."
The Gamecocks have been monsters on the boards and are getting into their offensive flow. Ashley Bruner and Welch have handled the post while freshman Tiffany Mitchell is improving every game.
"What (Mitchell) brings to the table is being competitive," Staley said. "She wants to be on the floor and is extremely coachable. She did what we wanted her to do to get the opportunity to start."
Bruner will be playing more on the perimeter now that Davis is out, but it shouldn't affect USC's game plan. When the Gamecocks have had trouble this season, it's usually when freshmen substitute in for veterans; a lull sometimes occurs.
Fighting that off in a strange environment where there is unlikely to be much blanketing support for any team is crucial to USC's development. While it's still very early in the year, Staley wants to see if her team will be equipped to handle a tournament-type atmosphere.
She knows she'll be in one at the end of the year, where the Gamecocks may have to win three or four games in a like number of days. Then there's the other, where they'll have to win two at a time on an opponent's court to really get where they're going.
Staley on Hampton
"Hampton is a challenge. They're coached well, they're extremely calculating in what they want to do, and they can defend and turn people over. They're pretty dangerous on the offensive end. They have players who are not afraid to take shots and players who rebound and are relentless. Our two styles are similar, and I think it will come down to the more disciplined team will win."
Staley on Florida Gulf Coast
"Florida Gulf Coast is different. They play all guards. They play continuity offense. Preparing for that game is like prepping for Drexel, so that will be a prelude to that game after this tournament for us. Our post players are going to have to come to play that game."
Staley on DePaul
"DePaul is a great program, always in the NCAA tournament. They will challenge us, challenge our defense. They're fairly calculating from what they want on the offensive end. The strength of our styles of play will factor into who wins the game - their offense versus our defense. We're looking forward to that challenge."