College Sports

Way-too-early questions for Dawn Staley and South Carolina in 2019-2020

Who’s in the starting five?

Now-senior guard Tyasha Harris is locked into one spot moving forward, and senior guard Te’a Cooper almost certainly has another. In addition, senior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will very likely continue in her stretch-four role in the frontcourt, though she was in and out of the lineup this past year due to inconsistency and must prove to Staley she’s put that issue behind her to be an everyday player.

“This is it; this is it for them,” coach Dawn Staley said of that trio after losing to Baylor in the Sweet 16. “They are seniors, and they have one more year to perform for us; so they are auditioning for who is going to be the leader of our team in this next year.”

Beyond that, the two major holes to fill are the third guard spot and the five. Who Staley places there will fundamentally shape the style of the team.

In the backcourt, sophomore Destanni Henderson would give the Gamecocks a third point guard like Bianca Cuevas-Moore did, while junior Bianca Jackson seems more adept off the ball, and junior Lele Grissett or freshman Brea Beal would add a lot more length and strength in the paint.

In the frontcourt, sophomore Victaria Saxton is an excellent rebounder but probably doesn’t have quite the girth to battle down low with true centers like Alexis Jennings did. Freshman Aliyah Boston has the frame to do so but might need time to transition to the college game, and fellow first-year Laeticia Amihere has otherwordly athleticism but is coming off a second major injury in two years.

Do the freshmen play right away?

Speaking of Beal, Boston and Amihere, the Gamecocks are adding one of the nation’s most talented recruiting classes of the past 20 years for the upcoming season. That’s been discussed, analyzed and hyped for some time now.

The immediate question is how quickly these freshmen can contribute. Some of it will be based on talent, and some on need — Saxton got plenty of chances as a freshman because USC was thin at forward, while Henderson forced her way through a crowded group of guards because she was just that good.

Where that leaves a player like Zia Cooke, a top-10 recruit and already viral-famous guard from Toledo, Ohio, is unclear. Cooke and Henderson will almost certainly terrorize SEC defenses in 2020-2021, but as long as Harris and Cooper are around and playing key roles, there just may not be enough spots for her to get meaningful minutes.

Who’s the go-to option?

For the first time since 2011-2012, the Gamecocks didn’t have a single player average 12 or more points per game in 2018-2019. That in and of itself wasn’t the worst thing, but it did illustrate South Carolina’s lack of a clear-cut, consistent top option.

Cooper could dominate at times but also just as easily vanish for entire games. Harris showed flashes of elite scoring ability but still never seemed comfortable doing so. Herbert Harrigan was dominant in March but wildly inconsistent otherwise. Henderson has the talent to develop into a premier scorer but will need to refine her game and shoot considerably better from the midrange.

In the end, the Gamecocks showed this past year that they can get pretty far cobbling together standout performances on a game-by-game basis, but the very best teams and players play at high levels with consistency.

How long will it take for chemistry to develop?

All season long, it felt like something was just a little off for South Carolina — Staley had lots of pieces, but how they all fit together was difficult to see.

In the NCAA tournament, Staley did say that the chemistry of the team took time to develop.

“I think after spending a year with this team, they understand where each and every person can be impactful for us. Earlier on, they didn’t know, they were just people that were trying to make an impact doing it themselves,” Staley explained.

Now the Gamecocks lose a pair of starters in Cuevas-Moore and Jennings and an important role player in Cliney, and add a freshman class likely eager to play right away. Sorting it all out will be a test of the seniors’ leadership, especially a three-year captain like Harris, and Staley’s roster management.

“For (Harris), her challenge next year will be to figure out how to balance the young players that are coming in versus some of the older ones that will lead with her,” Staley said before the second round of the NCAA tournament. “So if I’m a betting woman, I’m betting on Ty completing her career here at a very high level.”

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.