For preseason SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, the decision to play basketball at South Carolina was one that began to take shape at an early age.
Mitchell, who helped lead Providence Day to three state basketball championships, grew up watching Dawn Staley – now the coach of the Gamecocks – play in the WNBA for the Charlotte Sting.
“I used to go to (Staley’s) games and watch from the stands,” Mitchell said during SEC media day Tuesday in Charlotte. “I still have her (signed) jersey at home … framed in my room. I kind of looked up to her.”
The Gamecocks were voted the preseason favorites to repeat as SEC champions, with guard Mitchell picked to win a second straight player of the year award and teammate Aleighsa Welch part of the preseason, five-member all-SEC team in a vote of media.
Tennessee was picked to finish second, followed by Texas A&M, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the top five. Then came Georgia in sixth place, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Florida and Auburn. Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi were 11th through 14th.
When Mitchell began receiving recruiting calls from Staley, she did what she could to separate the part of her that was a fan from the elite basketball player she was quickly becoming.
This offseason, Staley and the Gamecocks added another Providence Day star in Jatarie White to a lineup that is slated to return all five starters from last season.
White, who also had offers from North Carolina, Ohio State, Texas and Tennessee, was on Staley’s radar early.
“We just put in a lot of time with the two of them,” Staley said of recruiting the two Charlotte stars. “(Mitchell) pretty much knew what she wanted to do. With Jatarie, we built a strong relationship with her parents, with her high school coach, and we just worked it.”
In her seventh season at the helm, Staley was able to add the No. 2 recruiting class in the country – with the No. 1 overall prospect A’Ja Wilson joining White (No. 7) along with two other Top 35 signees, Bianca Cuevas and Kaydra Duckett.
Staley’s recruiting success can be largely traced to the fact that she has essentially walled off the Carolinas. Of the 15 players on the Gamecocks’ roster, 10 hail from North or South Carolina.
Adding a talented freshman class to a team that made it to the Sweet 16 last season hasn’t come without added expectations.
“I hope you guys are right for once in the six years that I’ve been here at South Carolina,” she said of the media’s prediction that the Gamecocks will repeat as SEC champs.
The Gamecocks, who added nonconference home-and-home series with Connecticut and Duke to bolster their schedule – will open against Southern California on Nov. 15 in Columbia.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.