Pre­dic­tions, X-fac­tors and best games for USC women

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY GREG HADLEY ghadley@thes­tate.com

South Carolina women’s bas­ket­ball is set to open the 2018-2019 sea­son this Sun­day on the road against Alabama State. With­out na­tional player of the year A’ja Wil­son, the Game­cocks and coach Dawn Sta­ley will have to forge a new iden­tity, and quickly, as USC’S non­con­fer­ence sched­ule is once again bru­tal.

With­out Wil­son, what can fans ex­pect to see from the new-look Game­cocks? Here are some pre­dic­tions.

THREE X-FAC­TOR PLAY­ERS

Ju­nior guard Te’a Cooper: The Ten­nessee trans­fer has all the tools to be a dark horse All-amer­i­can can­di­date, and cer­tainly the con­fi­dence to go with it. When she’s on, she can carry the Game­cocks. The key will be mak­ing sure her off nights don’t sink the team.

Ju­nior for­ward Mikiah Herbert Har­ri­gan: Sta­ley has not been shy about say­ing she thinks Herbert Har­ri­gan could be an All-amer­i­can by the time she leaves South Carolina, and she shined at points last post­sea­son. But her emo­tions can some­times get the best of her, and she’ll need to stay con­sis­tent to un­lock her full po­ten­tial.

Fresh­man guard Des­tanni Hen­der­son: South Carolina has so many ex­pe­ri­enced guards, but

this fresh­man seems good enough to force her­self into the ro­ta­tion any­way. She has light­ning quick­ness, the abil­ity to at­tack the bas­ket and a solid shot. If she does play sig­nif­i­cant min­utes, that will give Sta­ley a stag­ger­ing num­ber of weapons in the back­court.

FIVE BIG­GEST GAMES

No. 9/10 Mary­land on Nov. 18: The Ter­rap­ins are just ahead of South Carolina in the pre­sea­son polls, and af­ter a tight early sea­son matchup in Col­lege Park last year, this year’s game feels es­pe­cially tough for a team that will still be es­tab­lish­ing its iden­tity.

No. 4/5 Bay­lor on Dec. 2: The Lady Bears may have the most tal­ented ros­ter in Amer­ica, with 10 former 5-star re­cruits, and Kim Mulkey’s squad is a peren­nial Fi­nal Four con­tender, hav­ing not lost more than five games in eight years.

No. 16/14 Mis­souri on Jan. 21: Even if you put aside all the off-the-court drama that’s been build­ing be­tween th­ese two pro­grams for a year now, this would still be a cru­cial game con­sid­er­ing the SEC stand­ings and Mis­souri’s abil­ity to play Carolina tough.

at No. 11/12 Ten­nessee on Feb. 24: The Lady Vols caught the Game­cocks twice last sea­son with­out A’ja Wil­son and pun­ished them both times. Can the Game­cocks flip the script this year? Also, Te’a Cooper’s re­turn to Knoxville should be fas­ci­nat­ing to watch.

No. 6/6 Mis­sis­sippi State on March 3: Ob­vi­ously there’s no guar­an­tee that the SEC reg­u­lar sea­son ti­tle will come down to this game on the fi­nal day of the sea­son. But the sched­ule-mak­ers prob­a­bly thought it would, and for good rea­son. This is the early fa­vorite for game of the year.

THREE STATS TO WATCH

Pos­ses­sions per 40 min­utes: Sim­ply known as pace to some, pos­ses­sions per 40 min­utes is the eas­i­est way to de­ter­mine how fast a team is play­ing, and if the ex­hi­bi­tion against Lan­der is any in­di­ca­tion, South Carolina should rank among the na­tion’s fastest. In that game, USC had 88 pos­ses­sions — the na­tion’s lead­ers usu­ally av­er­age in the low to mid 80s.

Turnover rate: The dan­ger in play­ing a fast pace is the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing con­trol and turn­ing the ball over fre­quently, and turnovers were an area of con­cern for the Game­cocks at the end of last reg­u­lar sea­son, as the team ended the year ranked 71st in the na­tion in turnover rate, or per­cent­age of pos­ses­sions that ended in a turnover, at 17 per­cent.

Blocks: A’ja Wil­son’s of­fen­sive tal­ent was tran­scen­dent, but her abil­ity to block shots was per­haps just as great. She holds four of the top six places in the pro­gram record book for blocks in a sea­son. With her, USC was among the na­tion’s leader in blocks per game and block rate. With­out her, play­ers like Alexis Jen­nings and Mikiah Herbert Har­ri­gan will be looked upon to step up their stuff­ing.

FIVE PRE­DIC­TIONS

Tyasha Har­ris will lead the team in scor­ing: Sta­ley has talked about get­ting Har­ris to be selfish and score more on her own for the past two years now, and this will be the sea­son she does it. The Game­cocks have a lot of weapons, and while Har­ris won’t lead the team in scor­ing ev­ery night, she has the con­sis­tency and the abil­ity to get to the rim to av­er­age around 14 or so points per game. Given how spread out the scor­ing should be on this team, that will lead USC.

Ladazhia Wil­liams will take a huge step for­ward: A thin front­court will be led by se­nior Alexis Jen­nings, but the Game­cocks need op­tions be­hind her, es­pe­cially see­ing as she was on the bench more than any other starter in 2017-2018. Fresh­man Vic­taria Sax­ton could step in and make a dif­fer­ence right away, but it’s Wil­liams, a former five-star re­cruit who barely played last year in part due to in­juries, who seems like she could make the big­gest im­pact at the “5” po­si­tion, grind­ing away down low.

The pro­gram record for 3-point at­tempts will be bro­ken: In its ex­hi­bi­tion against Lan­der, South Carolina was ev­ery­thing Sta­ley promised it would be in the pre­sea­son — fast-paced, po­si­tion-less and ea­ger to take shots from beyond the arc. All told, the Game­cocks at­tempted 30 3s, mak­ing seven.

Ob­vi­ously the Game­cocks won’t keep that rate up, but it seems likely that this will be Sta­ley’s first South Carolina team to take more than 600 3point­ers in a sea­son. The pro­gram record is 744, which means USC would have to av­er­age roughly 22 at­tempts per game to top that.

NCAA re­gional place­ment will con­tinue to be an is­sue: Sta­ley has made no se­cret of the fact that she has not been a fan of the re­gion­als the NCAA tour­na­ment se­lec­tion com­mit­tee has placed South Carolina in the past few years, far away from home where not many fans have been able to travel and sup­port the team. This sea­son seems like it would be the year to change that, with a re­gional right up the road in Greens­boro, North Carolina.

But the NCAA’S fa­mously finicky process, com­bined with an un­cer­tain seed, should give Game­cock fans pause be­fore book­ing ho­tels just yet. It seems un­likely that USC will be a No. 1 seed, and things can get very mud­dled af­ter those four teams.

Fewer than 10 losses? It’s been seven years since South Carolina ended the sea­son with dou­ble-digit losses, and it should ex­tend that streak in 20182019, but it will be close. The Game­cocks could have as many as 12 games against teams ranked in the AP pre­sea­son poll, in­clud­ing six against top-10 teams.

It’s not a stretch to imag­ine road losses to Uconn, Mis­sis­sippi State, Ten­nessee and per­haps even Duke. Add in tough home matchups with MSU again, Mary­land and Bay­lor, along with the tough Van­cou­ver Show­case, dif­fi­cult SEC tour­na­ment and of course the NCAA tour­ney, and there’s lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror.

TRACY GLANTZ tglantz@thes­tate.com

Last sea­son the Game­cocks fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son 29-7, won the SEC Women’s Tour­na­ment and made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tour­na­ment be­fore los­ing to Con­necti­cut. They open the sea­son Sun­day on the road against Alabama State.

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