Third Time a Charm?

In Dawn Staley's third season at the helm of the Gamecock women's basketball program, she is still searching for her first postseason appearance. The Gamecocks have not made the NCAA Tournament since their back-to-back appearances in 2002 and 2003 season, and have not made the WNIT since making it three years in a row from 2006-2008. Will the Gamecocks make a return in 2011?

After the first two years of the Dawn Staley era, the South Carolina women's basketball team is still searching for it's first post-season appearance. Can the South Carolina women's team make the NCAA Tournament in the 2010-11 season?

If you had asked me that question on November 12th prior to the Gamecocks taking the court to face Xavier in the season opener I would have done my best to keep from laughing and politely told you no way. Carolina had lost its most prized recruit in Kelsey Bone, who chose to transfer home to Texas A&M, prior to the season. To add insult to injury, Valerie Nainima - the team's leading scorer from the 2009-10 season - suffered a knee injury during a pick-up game over the summer and was going to be out for an extended period of time. Staley's prized recruit this season, post Kayla Brewer, decided to transfer shortly after the season began.

That left Staley looking to replace 31 points per game and searching for depth in the front court in a conference that is dominated by size. Staley was also looking at one of the toughest schedules in the country that included non-conference games against top 10 teams in Xavier, Stanford and North Carolina. Add in an always tough conference slate that included two match-ups with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia and you had a recipe for disaster.

Fast forward two months later on the eve of the most important month in college basketball and the Gamecocks are in the exact position they were in last season thanks to the emergence of several players. Ieasia Walker has become the primary scorer, averaging 13 points per game, and also leads the team with 54 steals and is second on the team in assists with 30 . Ashley Bruner has been a major source of energy off the bench - averaging nine points and six rebounds per game - along with a team-high 19 blocks. La'Keisha Sutton leads the team with 85 assists, but is also second on the team in scoring with just over nine per game. Courtney Newton has come back from her fourth major knee surgery and has earned a starting position for her tenacious defense, but showed in Thursday's victory over Georgia that she is still more than capable of putting the ball in the basket.

Last season Carolina sat at 11-10 and 4-5 in conference play heading into the month of February. This season, the Gamecocks are 12-10 and 4-5 in the SEC.

South Carolina won it's first two games in the month last season with road wins at Auburn and Georgia and returned home in perfect position to all but clinch an NCAA Tournament berth with home games against Mississippi State and Arkansas. Instead, the Gamecocks lost both on their way to losing five out of their final six games - including a first-round loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament - to finish the season with a 14-15 record. Not only did they miss a golden opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament in coach Dawn Staley's second season, but they failed to even qualify for the WNIT.

The road this season will be a little bit tougher for Carolina. Like last season, a top six finish in the conference and at least an 8-8 conference record should be enough to get in, especially with a strength of schedule that currently ranks 22nd despite Sunday's loss to Auburn. The RPI ranking is too low right now at 77, but if the Gamecocks finish strong it should be enough to rise into the 40's that should be high enough to get them in.

The question that remains is where those wins will come from. That's where the road gets bumpy. Four of the remaining seven games are road games, where the Gamecocks are just 1-6 and average less than 50 points per game this season. Two of those games - Arkansas and Mississippi State - are very winnable. The other two - Tennessee and LSU - will be very difficult.

The remaining three home games - where the Gamecocks are 11-3 - are Kentucky, Auburn, and the season finale against Vanderbilt. If the Gamecocks hold serve at home and win two of the four road games, they will finish with a 17-12 record and a 9-7 conference mark. That will get them into the NCAA Tournament. Even if Carolina only manages to win three of the remaining games, that will guarantee them at least a .500 record and assure them a spot in the WNIT. That would still be more than many gave the Gamecocks credit for coming into the season.

So to answer the question, yes South Carolina can make the NCAA Tournament. Have the Gamecocks learned from last season's collapse? That is the real question heading into the final month of the season. Only time will tell.

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