A way-too-early look at South Carolina women’s basketball for 2021-22

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It will be another six months before the South Carolina women’s basketball team plays another competitive game — and five more after that until the Final Four in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

But after coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four this past year and came agonizingly close to making the national championship game, fans are already eagerly anticipating what could be in the 2021-22 season. USC will once more feature an ultra-talented roster, and Staley has said her team now expects to contend for a national championship every year.

With that in mind, let’s take a very early look at South Carolina for next season.

ROSTER

BY GRADE

Senior

LeLe Grissett, guard

Destanni Henderson, guard

Victaria Saxton, forward

Destiny Littleton, guard

Elysa Wesolek, forward

Junior

Aliyah Boston, forward

Zia Cooke, guard

Brea Beal, guard

Laeticia Amihere, forward

Olivia Thompson, guard

Sophomore

Eniya Russell, guard

Kamilla Cardoso, center

Freshman

Saniya Rivers, guard

Raven Johnson, guard

Sania Feagin, forward

Bree Hall, guard

BY POSITION

Point guards (2)

Destanni Henderson, senior

Raven Johnson, freshman

Guards (6)

Destiny Littleton, senior

Zia Cooke, junior

Olivia Thompson, junior

Eniya Russell, sophomore

Saniya Rivers, freshman

Bree Hall, freshman

Wings (2)

LeLe Grissett, senior

Brea Beal, junior

Forwards (5)

Victaria Saxton, senior

Aliyah Boston, junior

Laeticia Amihere, junior

Elysa Wesolek, junior

Sania Feagin, freshman

Centers (1)

Kamilla Cardoso, sophomore

WHO’S LEAVING

At the moment, no one. When LeLe Grissett announced in mid-April that she would be taking advantage of the additional eligibility offered by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and returning for a “super senior” season, it ensured all 11 players on the 2020-21 roster would be back.

There are still months to go before the 2021-22 season starts, and plenty could change before then. But the fact that no Gamecock either went pro or has entered the transfer portal yet is somewhat astonishing.

By some counts, more than 1,000 Division I women’s basketball players entered the transfer portal over the past year. And success on the court is no protection against that. Of the 32 teams to win an NCAA tournament game this past season, only three have not already had a player leave in some form or fashion: Maryland, Georgia Tech and South Carolina. Of that group, only the Gamecocks advanced to the Elite Eight or beyond.

WHO’S COMING

Dawn Staley was already set to add a huge haul of talent to the roster with the 2021 recruiting class, featuring four McDonald’s All-Americans and top-15 recruits.

Then she added one of the most coveted transfers in the nation.

Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 All-ACC center from Syracuse, is a former McDonald’s All-American and top-five recruit herself, and she lived up to the hype in her rookie season with the Orange, averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.

With Cardoso’s addition, Staley could play a lineup comprised entirely of newcomers that most teams would envy — point guard Raven Johnson is a proven winner with four state titles and a national crown already; guard Saniya Rivers led the entire country in scoring, according to MaxPreps; guard Bree Hall can do a little bit of everything, averaging 3.4 steals and 2.5 blocks per game as a senior; and forward Sania Feagin was one of just 11 high-schoolers, along with Johnson, invited to try out for the 2021 USA Basketball women’s U19 World Cup Team.

With Cardoso anchoring the low post, that’s a formidable starting five — and yet none of them may start for South Carolina if Staley elects to go with the same lineup that came just a few inches from advancing to the national championship.

BIGGEST STRENGTH

Simply put, there’s not a team in the country that can credibly claim to have more depth of talent than the Gamecocks. With Cardoso aboard, the Gamecocks are currently set to have 11 former McDonald’s All-Americans and 14 former five-star prospects. For comparison, superpower UConn is at 11 of each at the moment, while defending national champion Stanford will have at most 10 five-star players and seven All-Americans.

In 2019-20, Staley wielded her roster’s extreme depth to ensure no player had to average more than 29 minutes per game. That kept everyone fresh, and although we never got to see the Gamecocks in the NCAA tournament, it likely would have paid dividends.

The 2021-22 roster, meanwhile, is likely to be even deeper. Even the third-string players will be former five-star prospects. That certainly raises questions of how Staley will find a way to get everyone enough minutes and touches to stay happy, but she gets the benefit of the doubt there given how well she has managed the roster over the past few years and the lack of transfers thus far this season, which usually speaks to happy players.

If there’s one area on that court that’s particularly exciting for the Gamecocks, though, it has to be the frontcourt. Aliyah Boston is a two-time All-American and Lisa Leslie Award winner, given to the nation’s best center. She was right in the conversation for national player of the year as a sophomore and will be so again as a junior. Opposing offenses fear going inside on her, where she is near impossible to beat.

And now to complement her, South Carolina has now added an even taller player in Cardoso, the ACC co-Defender of the Year as a freshman. Should they share the court this upcoming season, opponents likely won’t be able to get a shot off within eight feet of the basket.

That’s all without considering Victaria Saxton, a returning starter and high-energy player who was a team captain, and Laeticia Amihere, a player who has flashed enormous upside and could very likely be a future WNBA draft pick. Plus there’s Sania Feagin, who brings a versatile skillset and blocked 3.9 shots per game throughout her entire career.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) fights for possession of the ball with Stanford guard Kiana Williams, right, during the first half of a women’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) fights for possession of the ball with Stanford guard Kiana Williams, right, during the first half of a women’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

BIGGEST QUESTION

Can they make their layups?

It may seem simple, but it was the one thing that consistently haunted the Gamecocks last season. Two more made layups by Aliyah Boston, and USC could have beaten Connecticut and played for a national championship. As Dawn Staley said after the Final Four loss, that’s how fine the margin is.

But even putting aside Boston’s two missed buzzer-beaters, the layup problem is one that Staley called the team’s “nemesis” in each of their losses in 2020-21. All told, the official play-by-play logs from each of those five losses had Carolina going 64 of 148 on layups — 43.2%. That’s too low for such high-percentage shots.

On the entire year, the Gamecocks shot 46.4% on 2-pointers, the lowest mark for the program in the past eight seasons. Obviously not all 2-pointers are layups, but the overall mark speaks to a slight inefficiency at converting good opportunities into points.

Going back to that Final Four loss, even before those final two missed layups in the closing seconds, the Gamecocks had been 3 for 11 on those close range shots. Make two or three more, and the game might not have come down to the wire anyway.

If all this feels like nitpicking, well, it is. As mentioned above, there are no obvious holes in South Carolina’s roster. When it comes to competing for a national championship, though, it all comes down to the little details, which become magnified ten-fold.

STATE OF THE SEC

Within the SEC, there will be little debate — South Carolina will be the clear, likely unanimous, favorite to win its sixth regular season title and seventh tournament crown.

Last year’s regular season champ, Texas A&M, is losing three veteran starters. The tournament runner-up, Georgia, could be without two of their starters and top four scorers. Tennessee, the only SEC team beside A&M to topple South Carolina last season, is losing its star in Rennia Davis, along with another starter in Kasiyahna Kushkituah.

Kentucky has one of the nation’s best players in Rhyne Howard and returns most of its production, but struggled with inconsistency in 2020-21 and was knocked out early in the NCAA tournament. LSU has a new national champion coach in Kim Mulkey, but the roster is in need of a rebuild and it remains to be seen how quickly Mulkey can accomplish that.

STATE OF THE NATION

In way-too-early rankings from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic, South Carolina has checked in at No. 2, No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. The only teams ahead of them have been UConn and, in The Athletic’s case, Stanford.

But the Cardinal did lose their leading scorer, guard Kiana Williams, to the WNBA, and it is not yet clear whether senior Anna Wilson will return for another year.

Stanford isn’t the only team that will have to replace its top scorer from this past year. Elite Eight squads Arizona, Louisville and Texas must do so as well. Baylor, another squad that has the talent to perennially contend for Final Fours, suffered an even bigger blow, with coach Kim Mulkey departing for LSU.

That leaves UConn. The Gamecocks and Huskies are the current favorites to match up in the national championship in Minneapolis in April 2022, and the two teams have charted similar paths to start this offseason. While Connecticut did lose two players from last year’s roster, coach Geno Auriemma returns every starter and reserve who appeared in more than 20 games. The Huskies, like the Gamecocks, add a loaded recruiting class with four top-30 prospects. And they have also added a major frontcourt presence through the transfer portal, taking on All-Big Ten forward Dorka Juhasz, formerly of Ohio State.

Depending on how things play out, fans could get to see these two squads face off three times in 2021-22 — first near the very start of the season, when they could meet in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, again for their annual rivalry game in February, scheduled this year to take place in Columbia, and finally in the NCAA tournament itself. Each matchup will be hugely anticipated and likely shape the course of the season for the entire sport.

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