Dawn Staley has some pretty high expectations for South Carolina’s women’s basketball team this season.
After the Gamecocks made their first NCAA Final Four appearance last season, Staley admitted that only one thing would make this season a success.
“There’s no way I can say our season would be a success without winning a national championship,” Staley said during Thursday’s SEC Tipoff ‘16 media tour in Charlotte. “I think we’re primed to do it, and we have all the key ingredients to win.
“What I’ve seen from our players and from what I’ve seen from our coaching staff, we’re close. But we’re close both ways – we were close to not being there last year because of a play or two. It’s that close to the agony of defeat and the joys of victory.”
South Carolina – the preseason favorite to win its third consecutive SEC regular-season title – returns its three leading scorers from last year’s 34-3 team, which lost to Notre Dame 66-65 in the Final Four.
Among the returnees are two Associated Press All-Americans – senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, a first-team pick and a finalist for the three major national player of the year awards; and sophomore forward A’ja Wilson, a third-team selection.
To prepare for this season, the Gamecocks have a tough nonconference schedule, which includes games against three AP Top 25 teams – Ohio State on Nov. 13, Arizona State on Nov. 27 and Duke on Dec. 6.
“This is the hardest nonconference (schedule) has been since I’ve been here,” said Mitchell, a Charlotte native and Providence Day graduate. “It’ll definitely prepare us for tournament time.”
That’s the point of the tough scheduling, Staley said.
“They have a nasty taste in their mouth from how our season ended last year,” Staley said. “If we get back there, I think we’ll do our jobs and make sure we’re not sent home earlier than we need to be.”
Former Tar Heel a Volunteer: Tennessee returns three starters from last year’s team that went 30-6 and tied South Carolina for the SEC regular-season title.
But much attention has been given to the Volunteers’ newest player: redshirt sophomore Diamond DeShields, who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina.
“I’ve had as many questions about this being the Diamond DeShields show,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “But it’s not going to be her show, and she doesn’t want it to be her show. She wants to contribute to the team.”
With the Tar Heels, DeShields earned consensus national freshman of the year honors after averaging 18.0 points and 5.4 rebounds during the 2013-2014 season.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a kid as competitive as Diamond is,” Warlick said. “She hates to lose, and the more I’m around her I realize how great a team player she is.
“Our players are excited to get a player of her caliber wearing a Tennessee uniform. It’s going to make them better, and they’re going to make her better.”
Filling big shoes at Georgia: Joni Taylor is the SEC’s newest head coach, but she knew she had some big shoes to fill when she was promoted in April.
Taylor was named to replace Andy Landers, who coached the Bulldogs’ women’s team for 36 years until retiring at the end of the 2014-2015 season.
“It’s still overwhelming,” said Taylor, who had served as an assistant coach and associate head coach under Landers the past four seasons. “It’s also humbling. You can use the word ‘intimidating’ as well, but I use that and turn it into motivation.
“More than anything, I understand what the tradition and storied history that Georgia basketball has. Everything that is Georgia basketball is Andy Landers. It’s a charge for me to make sure we continue and improve on what we’ve already done, just because of the expectations that are there.”