Analysts see recipe for success

Women's basketball analysts Debbie Antonelli and LaChina Robinson took part in South Carolina's #Hoopstakeover to discuss the women's basketball team. Both analysts sees a consistently improved team that could surprise a lot of people if they show the improvement they showed a year ago.

Thanks in large part to head coach Dawn Staley, the South Carolina women's basketball program is officially on the map. With the exception of the 2001-02 team that advanced to the Elite Eight, Carolina is enjoying some rare national attention heading into the 2012-13 season that begins Friday night against Elon.

"I have really been amazed by what she's been able to do in a short amount of time," women's basketball analyst LaChina Robinson recently said on #Hoopstakeover. "I think this team has taken on her identity. It's not easy in the SEC, a conference in which women's basketball has a longstanding tradition of success. To come into a league and emerge as one of the best teams in the league in a short amount of time is a tremendous compliment to what they've done there."

Carolina impressed many around the nation with the success the team enjoyed last season. Carolina snapped a 32-year losing streak to Tennessee with their first win in program in history in Knoxville, swept a season series with Vanderbilt, and went on the road to win two games in the NCAA Tournament that included a win over home-standing Purdue in the second round. That team embodied all that Dawn Staley is.

"I can spend a whole show talking about what kind of person Dawn is, what a terrific pedigree she has, and how she has developed and built this South Carolina program to the point where it's on a national stage," analyst Debbie Antonelli said. "She's an incredible person and I have watched her balance a lot in her life. I will take this snapshot of a time when she was playing for the Charlotte Sting, coaching Temple, working on some academic degree, and writing a book at the same time. Dawn has superhuman qualities and she can really do a lot, more than people expected."

One of the reasons Staley's team was so successful last season was because of the senior leadership of players like La'Keisha Sutton, Markeshia Grant, Courtney Newton, and Charenee Stephens. All of those players are gone and a new crop of players have joined the team.

"She has a good balance right now," Robinson said. "She has veteran leadership back, but she also has a mix of tremendous talent coming in the freshman class, and I think it's going to be about how the group comes together. Tiffany Mitchell is going to be a big part as the Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina. Khadijah Sessions is someone who is going to be expected to come in and contribute right away after losing Markeshia Grant and La'Keisha Sutton. You already have Ieasia Walker and Ashley Bruner, who is one of the best undersized rebounders in the nation. I thought (Aleighsa) Welch came in and was amazing as a freshman. If Dawn can keep doing what she's done I see a lot more postseason success."

For South Carolina to enjoy success similar to what it enjoyed last season it will have some work to do. Not only do they have to surpass the traditional powers of the conference of Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt, but they now face a new foe. Texas A&M, two years removed from a national championship, has joined to conference and brings another traditional power to the conference. All five are ranked in the preseason AP Poll and were picked to finish ahead of South Carolina in the SEC. Even if South Carolina were to finish sixth in the conference, that would likely be enough to earn them a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

"Right now in the preseason there are five SEC teams in the AP Poll and Coach's Poll, and if you look at the Coach's Poll, South Carolina would be right around 27th," Robinson said. "That gives you an idea that you can see six teams, but I think you could see eight teams in the NCAA Tournament easily. The thing is that you're competing against the best competition night in and night out and that's how this league has built its identity. They get into the NCAA Tournament after they have been battling it out in the SEC and they're able to compete with some of the best in the nation. You saw what South Carolina did against Purdue. They beat three ranked teams on the road."

Two key home match-ups feature a January 3rd contest against Tennessee and a February 10th meeting with Texas A&M. Texas A&M features former South Carolina center Kelsey Bone and she will be returning to Columbia for the first time since leaving the team following the 2009-10 season. The conference opener between the Gamecocks and Volunteers presents an opportunity for Carolina to beat Tennessee in consecutive contests for the first time in program history. Though long-time Tennessee coach and face of women's basketball Pat Summitt is no longer walking the sidelines after her retirement following last season, it is still Tennessee and there is still that aurora that will follow them.

"I give Eric Hyman a lot of credit because early on Dawn had to change the culture and he stood with her and continued to encourage her," Antonelli said. "I assume Ray Tanner will do the same thing. Dawn only knows about excellence. What she is trying to do is get a consistent level of excellence so, if we all of sudden expect to beat Tennessee every year, that's where the expectations should be and that's where Dawn is."

While there seems to be a consensus among the analysts and the media that South Carolina will finish around the middle of the pack in the conference this season, the talent is there to exceed those expectations. Throw in a little extra motivation and the formula is there for the Gamecocks to have a special season.

"Our players thought it was a little unfair," Staley said. "I'm glad they're looking at standings and they're seeing where people project us and they want to use it as motivation to prove people wrong. We've done that for the last four years."

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