South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had a question that kept bothering her this offseason: Can nice players win a championship?
Staley, entering her 13th year with the Gamecocks, gets the chance to find out as the Gamecocks enter the year No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 and the consensus pick to win their sixth Southeastern Conference title in eight years.
Staley appreciates the skill, smarts and relentless preparation of her stars like Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke.
Still, there's that question of temperament that gnaws at Staley.
“They all have a killer mentality, but they're super nice,” Staley said. “It almost bothers me how nice they are.”
Staley's “nice” team dominated last season, rolling to a 32-1 record and a No. 1 ranking before the coronavirus cut short their postseason. The Gamecocks will start the season when they left off, earning their first No. 1 preseason Top 25 ranking.
To finish on top, South Carolina will once more have to hold off several talented SEC teams looking to derail the Gamecocks run of championships, including the 2017 national title.
No. 6 Mississippi State, which reached three straight Final Fours and won the SEC title in 2019, is again expected to be South Carolina's biggest challenger despite the loss of energetic coach Vic Schafer, who left for Texas this past offseason.
Replacing him is a former Staley assistant Nikki McCray-Penson.
There are three other SEC teams in the Top 25: Kentucky is 11th, followed by Texas A&M at No. 13 and Arkansas at 14th.
Staley acknowledged her latest team lost some of its “punch” in fiery point guard Tyasha Harris and never-back-down forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan.
Texas transfer Destiny Littleton returns to the court at South Carolina after a year off due to NCAA requirements and rehabbing an ankle injury.
Boston, 6-foot-5, was second in scoring (12.5 points a game) and led in rebounding (9.4) and blocked shots as a freshman.
Boston is eager for games to start since last season had an unsatisfying finish despite the Gamecocks winning their final 26 games before the shut down.
“It just happened so abruptly,” Boston said.
She understood why, of course, and spent the offseason improving her outside shot and her strength and aggressiveness down low.
As far as nice, Boston said just wait until the action starts. “We're all bringing it this year,” she said.
Some other things to watch for in the SEC this season.
SEC coaches picked South Carolina to finish on top with Kentucky and preseason player of the Rhyne Howard in second. Texas A&M was third followed by Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee. Howard was a member of the coaches' eight-player all-SEC first team along with Arkansas' Chelsea Dungee, Auburn's Unique Thompson, LSU's Khayla Pointer, Mississippi State's Rickea Jackson, South Carolina's Boston, Tennessee's Rennia Davis and Texas A&M's N'dea Jones.
REPLACING GAMECOCK STARTERS
Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan were both freshmen on South Carolina's national championship team in 2017 and went on to start a combined 189 games. Their experience and leadership will be the hardest things to replace and will only come with time, Staley said.
It has been a turnover of coaches at the top in the SEC with McCray-Penson debuting at Mississippi State and Kentucky assistant Kyra Elzy stepping in on an interim basis for longtime coach Matthew Mitchell, who cited ill health for stepping away so close to the season. The Bulldogs were 27-6 last year, losing the SEC Tournament title game to the Gamecocks. Kentucky went 22-8 a season ago.
This is starting to become a disturbing trend for Tennessee fans. Tennessee was nowhere to be found in the preseason Top 25 for a second straight season. A year ago, the Lady Vols snapped a streak of 42 years starting the season in the rankings when they missed out. They went 21-10 under first-year coach and former point guard Kellie Harper, tying for third in the SEC. Still, it was not enough to garner votes for them to be ranked in this year's preseason poll.
The SEC said it will use KINEXON SafeZone technology to enhance COVID-19 contact tracing during the men's and women's basketball season. It includes wearing lightweight devices that will be used during basketball practices and game. The SEC is using the same proximity devices at its football games.
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