COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It seemed like only yesterday when Dawn Staley, her netlace, and the Gamecocks were cruising down Main Street holding the NCAA Championship trophy.
The Gamecocks are now six months removed from claiming their first national championship in program history and are preparing to defend their throne once the season tips off on November 10.
"This is a different team," Staley said. "It's not the national championship team that took the floor last year. A lot is different. We're going to have to do things a little bit different. Things are going to be a little bit harder, but it's not an impossible feat for us to get back and win."
Last year, Carolina posted a 33-4 record on their way to winning the national title. This year, the Gamecocks face a tough schedule that includes Maryland, Duke, and Connecticut among non-conference opponents. Without being national champions, this schedule could prove to be extremely difficult. However, Staley and her players know they're going to get everyone's best shot when they take the court.
"It's hard because…they want to have the bragging rights of knocking off a national champion," Staley said when asked why it's hard to repeat as champion. "You get people's best effort. I almost equate it to every time we go as the USA team, every time we go to a tournament outside of the country, we get everybody's best effort because we're the American team. We're the USA and that's what defending national champions have to bear when you're going into another season."
This year's team will be without perennial All-SEC selection Alaina Coates, NCAA Stockton Region Most Outstanding Player Kaela Davis, and the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray. That talented trio may be gone, but the Gamecocks have a few new faces like Alexis Jennings and Lindsey Spann they'll rely on to fill those voids.
"We don't really have any replacements," Staley said, "but we have players in here that have to play within themselves. Obviously, they leave a void of talent and we're probably not as talented as they were, but they do some other things. If they can play their roles to the best of their abilities, we can see the same kind of results."
One staple the Gamecocks can rely on this year is reigning NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player A'ja Wilson. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game during her junior campaign. With Coates gone, Wilson will lead the charge for the Gamecocks in their quest to win a second straight title.
"She's the leader of our team," Staley said. "She's definitely positioned herself to be that and she comes out here and she displays that out on the court as well as in the community as well as in the dorms with her teammates. She's done a great job with that."