SEC: Expectations high for South Carolina No.1 Staley | Sports
Dawn Staley already knows she’s facing outsized expectations with what the South Carolina women’s basketball program has accomplished.
They come from the players, the fans and even the president of the university.
Interim President of Harris Pastides School, speaking earlier this month after Staley received a new $ 22.4 million contract, said: “We are also setting the bar high for her.”
And Staley is good with it.
South Carolina is No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 and will bring the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to the field for the second time in the past three seasons. The Gamecocks are the favorites to win their sixth Southeastern Conference Championship title in the past nine seasons and have won six of the last seven SEC tournaments.
One of the reasons Staley is up for the challenge is because she enjoys the early chemistry between veterans and newcomers on a team that reached the Final Four a year ago.
“Whenever they are faced with competition, they pretty much rise to the challenge,” Staley said. “They are not perfect. But it does not come from any place other than a need. It’s super cool to be in this environment.
South Carolina begins with a corps that includes All-American Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, the centerpiece of its No.1 recruiting class of 2019. The most recent group includes Guardsmen Raven Johnson and Saniya Rivers and forward Sania Feagin, who were ranked No. 2-3-4 among college prospects, according to ESPN.
“We get along really well,” said Rivers. “We’re basically a younger version” of the 2019 South Carolina No.1 Class.
The bond went well, with the older group bringing their championship experience – they lost to eventual NCAA tournament champion Stanford 67-66 in the national semifinals – to the training ground with the goal of go until the end.
“We’re going to put in a lot more players because they’ll be well enough prepared to play at this level,” said Staley.
And we expect to be successful.
A few other things to watch out for in the upcoming SEC women’s basketball season:
While the Gamecocks have been chosen to win the league, they will have a host of talented pursuers looking to take them down. The Tennessee No.15 was voted second by the SEC and National Writers Panel and No.24 Texas A&M, last year’s SEC regular season champions, was third. Kentucky No.13 and SEC Preseason Player of the Year Rhyne Howard were fourth, followed by Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Alabama. Missouri was picked 11th, followed by Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
There are several new high-profile rookies in the SEC this season, starting with Baylor National Championship coach Kim Mulkey moving to LSU. Vanderbilt hired Shea Ralph, who spent nearly two decades winning titles at UConn as a player and assistant coach.
Mississippi State lost coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who had to withdraw from the program for health reasons. Doug Novak, Bethel’s men’s coach for the previous eight seasons, is the Bulldogs’ interim coach. Auburn brought in Johnnie Harris, who had been Vic Schaeffer’s assistant in the state of Mississippi and Texas.
Mulkey returns to LSU after leading Baylor to three national titles and 19 NCAA appearances. She said the triumphs there were like “feeding the monster” and knows it will take some time for the Tigers, who won nine games last year, to get back to that level when they hit Finals three. Ovens in the 2000s.
Mulkey said she would celebrate “the little things” her team accomplished, like improving last year’s winning mark or defeating a ranked opponent.
THE RETURN OF VANDERBILT
Vanderbilt is back after missing most of last season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Commodores only played eight games in total and three SEC contests – all losses – before choosing to call off the season due to a “combination of COVID-19 circumstances, strikeouts and injuries,” the school said last January.
Shea Ralph, Vanderbilt’s freshman coach is eager to get started, saying: “Building our culture and our championship tradition here is going to take time and consistency.”
Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard seeks third straight SEC Player of the Year title and was chosen as the preseason favorite to do so. Howard, a 6-foot-2 senior, averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the Wildcats. His second season, Howard had 23.4 points per game, the second highest in the country that year.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.