COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Under the lights at Colonial Life Arena on Friday morning, Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks ran through a few plays.
The season may not start for about five months, but the Gamecocks are getting some practice time in to prepare for their trip to Japan at the end of the month.
"I think this is a good feeling," said Gamecocks forward A'ja Wilson. "I think this is our first international trip together honestly and, for us to have actual practice this early in the season, I think it's good for us because, now when teams are getting together in September or August, we've already been together for a couple months."
Of course, the practice was missing a few familiar faces in Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray. The trio has gone on to the WNBA giving USC's practices a slightly different feel for veteran players like Wilson. However, the new additions to the roster provide a positive energy for the Gamecocks.
"This is a different air we're breathing," Staley said. "More than half of our team is composed of freshmen and sophomores and it'll take some time for us to get our stuff in, but things are moving pretty quickly."
Staley noted that the team was learning a lot of different things ahead of the Japan trip to determine how fast or slow the coaching staff will have to go in order to install schemes for the upcoming season. Regardless of the team's learning curve, Staley said the Gamecocks will have to rely on their young players as they prepare to defend their title.
"They're going to have to play for us this year," Staley said. "Obviously, we lost two players on the perimeter and we lost a post player in Alaina Coates. So, people will have to step up and play a little bit larger role than we probably anticipated not having those players come back."
The Gamecocks will be thoroughly tested against the Japan National Team. Just last year, Japan was down just two points with 1:30 left in the first half before Team USA eventually pulled away in the quarterfinal win.
"We want to see what our players are made of by playing a team like Japan because they are a team in which our USA Basketball team in Rio had a difficult time separating, especially in the first quarter," Staley said. "I think we broke away a little bit in the second quarter and, then, the game got out of hand in the second half. But we're not taking three- and four-time Olympians into Tokyo. So, we're looking forward to being challenged."
The Gamecocks are also looking forward to being in Tokyo for a few days. The trip gives the defending champs an opportunity to bond even more.
"I think it gives more time to really, really come together as a team, especially with being overseas," Wilson said. "We can't be on our phones like that so we really actually have to communicate with each other. We already kind of live in a tight space with each other, but we really get to be together."
"They're so young, so inexperienced, and I think we need to build that chemistry," Staley added, "because…10 of our 14 players are like new freshmen, sophomores, and then transfers. We've got to get them up to speed with our culture and letting them know how we need to approach this season."