Dawn Staley is a fan of super teams, particularly the homegrown way she has built them in her 16 seasons at South Carolina.
Staley has recruited some of the game's best and kept them with the Gamecocks in the portal era, where moving from one school to another is seemingly as easy and uncomplicated as an uncontested layup.
The Gamecocks were No. 1 throughout last season and were 36-0 before falling to Iowa in the national semifinals. They're looking up as the season begins in both the AP Top 25 and the Southeastern Conference predictions at national champion LSU,
The Tigers feature dynamic Angel Reese and two of the top transfers of the offseason in Louisville's Hailey Van Lith and DePaul's Aneesah Morrow. Van Lith was a natural leader with the Cardinals while Morrow had 53 double-doubles in 66 games with the Blue Demons.
Expect both to slide easily into LSU's starting lineup and form a super squad with Reese and Flau'jae Johnson, who started every game as a freshman a year ago during the title-winning season.
Count on a super-charged, SEC showdown when the Gamecocks visit LSU on Jan. 25.
Staley's crafted what she expects to be a standout team of her own, bringing them in as freshmen and keeping players engaged and ready to step in when it's time. There are exceptions, like 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, who was the ACC freshman of the year at Syracuse before joining Staley three seasons ago.
Look for the base of this year's team to be the No. 1 recruiting class from 2021 that features point guard Raven Johnson and forwards Bree Hall and Sania Feagin.
“This is a totally different group,” Staley said. “The slate is wiped clean. This is all about this particular group. It’s not a bad thing.”
Staley hopes to have her inexperienced group primed and ready for SEC play after losing the core of team including Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, who reached three straight Final Fours and won the 2022 championship.
There's plenty of skill — Staley has eight McDonald's All-Americans on the 11-player roster — but a lot of strides to make as the group mostly sat behind Boston, Cooke and Co. the past couple of years.
Especially if they can quickly find the team's typical form with a schedule that opens with the sixth-ranked Gamecocks facing No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris on Nov. 6 before returning to play No. 12 Maryland six days later. There are games in December with No. 16 North Carolina and No. 5 Utah before the start of SEC play.
Hall, in her third season, said being an underdog is a different role for her team, one they're ready for.
“I think we're going to take it well,” she said. “We're a very competitive, hard-working team.”
LSU coach Kim Mulkey thought her team was ahead of schedule in winning the NCAA championship in her second season. At No. 1 in the country, her Tigers are expected to keep the run going.
Mulkey received a $32 million contract extension over the next decade this offseason and appears to have a good chance for consecutive titles for the first time since UConn won four in a row from 2013-2016.
WHO ELSE CAN CONTEND IN SEC?
Tennessee is ranked No. 11 and Ole Miss No. 12 to give the SEC four programs among the top 12 teams in the AP Top 25.
For the Lady Vols, a lot could depend on 6-6 senior Tamari Key. Coach Kellie Harper said Key is day-to-day after her junior year was cut short when tests found blood clots in her lungs.
“We've got to continue to be patient and be very smart about this progression and make sure we're putting her in position to be successful,” Harper said. “I think she understands that.”
The Rebels have been steadily improving under fifth-year coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. They made it back to the NCAA Tournament in 2022 for the first time in 15 years and advanced to the Sweet 16 this past March.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead,” senior forward Madison Scott said. “We don’t want to reminisce on last year. It’s all about what’s next.”
NOT SO NEW FACES
The SEC appears to be the league of stability without a head coaching change this offseason. Staley, the two-time national champion, has the longest tenure as she starts her 16th season at South Carolina. Not far behind are Robin Pingeton at Missouri, in her 12th year there, and Alabama's Kristy Curry, who begins her 11th year with the Crimson Tide.
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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball