Can A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates lead Gamecocks back to Final Four?

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- How do you like the view here, on the peak just below the peak? It's nice, isn't it? Look at how vast the area is that now lies below you, and realize what hard work it was to get this far.

Now, see that ledge right there? Get to that. Hoist yourself up just one more time. And there you are -- at the very top! It doesn't look that far away, especially considering the distance you've come to get here. You can do it, right?

This is where South Carolina women's basketball is, and it's a great place to be. But what seems so close sometimes can be the most difficult part of the trip. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley knows this all too well, but it's not what she's talking to her team about, of course.

South Carolina, for all its talent, is still discussing some of the basics now. That's what happens after losing four senior guards. Yet the last thing most anyone is expecting from the Gamecocks -- especially with a post duo like A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates -- is that they might need just a little rebuilding time.

They're back in the spotlight again, so there's a fair amount that has to be worked out quickly.

"It's a little too care-free, but it's who we are," Staley said of the personality of her team. "Our coaches have talked about it: Who's the leader? Who's stepping up? It can't look like last year because we're not like last year.

"We've come upon a new type of team and new leadership. So it's on us to figure out how to get it to that place without having those strong, competitive, outspoken people like we've had in years past."

No one is feeling sympathy for South Carolina, which went 33-2 in 2015-16 and is picked to win the SEC again. And the team will get a test right away, when the No. 4 Gamecocks travel to face No. 7 Ohio State on Monday.

The Gamecocks have been an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed three years in a row. They went to their first Final Four in 2015. They tied for the SEC regular-season title that year, won it with a 16-0 record last season and took the league tournament title both times.

They've led the nation in Division I attendance two years in a row, averaging 14,978 last season. In a conference where football can blot out the sun even for men's basketball in some places, the Gamecocks matter to their school and community. They have a foothold.

In the climb that the best programs in college sports attempt to make, the Gamecocks have been on a mostly exhilarating race up the mountain. The next ledge would be making it to the national championship game. And you know the final step.

However, there are those programs that can do all but the last one. They don't get past the ledge. And many don't get quite get that far.

As a player at Virginia, Staley went to three straight Final Fours and made one final but didn't win a title. This is well-worn territory in her mind. For her current players? Not so much, which is just as well.

South Carolina lost senior guards Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Asia Dozier and Tina Roy. Also gone are forwards Sarah Imovbioh, a transfer from Virginia who played her last season at South Carolina, and Jatarie White, who transferred to Texas.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore, Doniyah Cliney and Tiffany Davis are returning guards who have experience under Staley. Davis, though, redshirted last season with an injury and played just 16 games the previous year.

Cuevas-Moore played all but one game last season, averaging 18.1 minutes. In her two seasons, she has 127 assists -- but 124 turnovers.

Transfers Allisha Gray (coming from North Carolina) and Kaela Davis (Georgia Tech) should give the guard play a substantial boost. Both juniors were with the program last year, which helped get them ready for big roles this season. As sophomores at their previous schools, the 6-foot-2 Davis averaged 19.2 points per game, and the 6-foot Gray 15.2 PPG.

"Allisha is in midseason form now; she is the outside threat that can replace some of what we lost," Staley said. "As for Kaela -- I don't know if there's a more versatile player in the country who can play 1 through 4 like she can. It's going to take some time for us to mesh as a unit, though."

South Carolina also has three freshman guards in Tyasha Harris, Araion Bradshaw and Victoria Patrick. The fourth rookie is 6-2 forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who made a good first impression with 23 points and 11 rebounds Sunday in the Gamecocks' 120-49 exhibition victory over Benedict.

The foundation of the team is expected to be the local products, 6-5 Wilson and 6-4 Coates, who first started playing together in AAU basketball in Columbia when they were around 12 and 13 years old. Their influence on the program has been profound. They try not to dwell much on how last season ended -- a regional semifinal loss to Syracuse -- but it's there.

"I think about it almost every day," Wilson said. "It's one of the games that I have not watched yet. I don't think I'm ever going to watch it.

"But it's a motivator -- going from being in the Final Four your freshman year to being out in the Sweet 16 your sophomore year. You know what it takes to get to the Final Four, so being stopped is kind of a heartbreaker."

Wilson, the SEC player and defensive player of the year last season, is high on the list of candidates for national player of the year. Over her first two seasons, she averaged 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds.

Coates could be a lottery pick in the WNBA draft next spring, and maybe even the top selection. She's averaged 11.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in her three seasons with the Gamecocks, and shot 63.9 percent from the field.

With that kind of post production, the Gamecocks know what their proverbial bread and butter is -- same as last year.

There is a lot of logic in pounding the ball inside when you have those kind of targets. But Staley also wants the rest of the team to play to its strength. She hired former Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb specifically to help; her title is director of coaching offensive analytics.

"Some shots that five years ago I would go ballistic on now are part of our game," Staley said, resigned to perhaps ceding a little more control to players' on-court instincts. "I don't mind taking a jump shot in transition, if that's what a player does and she's accurate in that.

"Let's not go crazy; let's embrace it and look at the numbers. If she's efficient in that spot, we can't be mad at it."

And so the Gamecocks, who are close enough to the peak that they can see it, are still working out the best way to actually get there. Admittedly, it can sometimes seem like the most frustrating part of the journey. But it just depends on how you look at it. Because it took a lot to get this far, and that should be relished, too.

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