Stop me if you've heard this one before. South Carolina is No. 1. For the second straight season, the Gamecocks find themselves atop the preseason Associated Press poll. It's a spot they've occupied 14 times in the last three seasons and 25 times during the Dawn Staley era.
Why wouldn't South Carolina start Staley's 14th season at No. 1? In what may be an unprecedented development, they return all 11 players from a team that reached the Final Four. That group includes two All-Americans, first-teamer Aliyah Boston, last year's leading rebounder, and honorable mention Zia Cooke, last year's leading scorer.
If that weren't enough to continue the annual great expectations for the program, they added Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, the ACC's freshman and co-defensive player of the year.
Oh, and they signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation with four incoming freshmen ranked Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 14 in the class of 2021. Point guard Raven Johnson from Atlanta was the Naismith High School player of the year.
It's the second national No. 1 recruiting class on the roster, joining the 2019 group that includes Boston and Cooke. Staley described her current juniors as "boring, really. They only want to play basketball. They only want people that want to win basketball games and want to help them win a national championship. It's a tale of two classes."
The juniors understand winning. As freshmen, they helped South Carolina go 32-1, 16-0 in the SEC, and they captured the conference regular-season and tournament titles. Sadly, COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament and their chance to win a national championship.
As sophomores, they led a 26-5 team that finished second in the regular season at 14-2 but won a second straight SEC Tournament. The
Gamecocks reached the Final Four but fell to Stanford by a heartbreaking point in the national semifinals.
Now they're back, bolstered by a key transfer and another No. 1 recruiting class. As Staley said, "They know the expectations we have in front of us, and they're leading our young ones through that."
Staley herself is on a personal roll. As head coach, she led the U.S. team to a gold medal this summer at the Tokyo Olympics. Last week, South Carolina rewarded her for her long run of success with a new seven-year, $22.4-million contract that puts her on par with UConn Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma.
"What she's done in her 13 seasons has been absolutely remarkable," South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner said at the press conference announcing Staley's new contract. "Sustaining success is one of the hardest things to do in sports, and she's already exemplified that."
South Carolina President Harris Pastides added, "I'd love to see Coach Staley complete her career here if she so chooses."
First things first. The next step is to lead this talented, experienced team to her fourth Final Four and second national championship at South Carolina. Staley said this team is "a little bit ahead of where we've been in years past ... from a pace and defensive standpoint, from being super, super, super competitive every single drill. Every single time that they are faced with some competition, they pretty much rise to the challenge. It's super cool to be in this environment."