SEC: Expectations sky high for No. 1 South Carolina, Staley

Dawn Staley already knows she is facing outsized expectations with what South Carolina’s women’s basketball program has accomplished.

They come from players, fans and even the university president.

Interim school President Harris Pastides, speaking earlier this month after Staley received a new $22.4 million contract, said: “We’re also setting a high bar of expectations for her.”

And Staley is good with that.

South Carolina is No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 and will bring the country’s top-ranked recruiting class onto the court for the second time in the past three seasons. The Gamecocks are favorites to win their sixth Southeastern Conference league title in the past nine seasons and have won six of the past seven SEC Tournaments.

One reason Staley is embracing the challenge is she likes the early chemistry between veterans and newcomers on a team that reached the Final Four a year ago.

“Every single time they are faced with competition, they pretty much rise to the challenge,” Staley said. “They’re not perfect. But it’s not coming from any other place than a want. It’s super cool to be in this environment.”

South Carolina starts with a corps that includes All-American Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, the centerpiece of its No. 1 recruiting class in 2019. The newest group features guards Raven Johnson and Saniya Rivers and forward Sania Feagin, who were ranked Nos. 2-3-4 among college prospects, according to ESPN.

“We get along very well,” Rivers said. “We’re basically a younger version” of South Carolina’s 2019 No. 1 class.

The bonding has gone well, with the older group bringing their championship experience — they lost to eventual NCAA Tournament champion Stanford 67-66 in the national semifinals — to the practice court with the goal of going all the way.

“We’re going to have play a lot more players because they’ll be prepped well enough to play at this level,” Staley said.

And expected to succeed.

Some other things to watch in the upcoming SEC women’s basketball season:

THE PRESEASON OUTLOOK

While the Gamecocks were picked to win the league, they’ll have a host of talented chasers looking to knock them off. No. 15 Tennessee was voted second by the panel of SEC and national writers and No. 24 Texas A&M, last year’s regular-season SEC champions, third. No. 13 Kentucky and preseason SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard were fourth, followed by Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Alabama. Missouri was picked 11th, then Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt.

NEW FACES

There are several high-profile new hires in the SEC this season, starting with Baylor national championship coach Kim Mulkey moving to LSU. Vanderbilt hired Shea Ralph, who spent nearly two decades winning titles at UConn as a player and assistant coach.

Mississippi State lost coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who had to step away from the program because of health reasons. Doug Novak, the men’s coach at Bethel the previous eight seasons, is the Bulldogs’ interim coach. Auburn brought in Johnnie Harris, who had been assistant to Vic Schaeffer at Mississippi State and Texas.

MULKEY’S MOVE

Mulkey is starting over at LSU after leading Baylor to three national titles and 19 NCAA appearances. She said triumphs there were like “feeding the monster” and knows it will take some time for the Tigers, who won nine games last year, to return to that level when they reached three Final Fours during the 2000s.

Mulkey said she’ll celebrate “the little things” her team accomplishes, like bettering last year’s win mark or defeating a ranked opponent.

VANDERBILT’S RETURN

Vanderbilt is back after missing almost all of last season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Commodores played only eight games overall and three SEC contests — all losses — before choosing to call off the season because of a “combination of COVID-19 related circumstances, opt outs and injuries,” the school said last January.

Vanderbilt’s first-year coach Shea Ralph is eager to get going, saying: “Building our culture and championship tradition here is going to take some time and consistency.”

HOWARD THREE-PEAT

Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard is seeking her third straight SEC player of the year honor and was picked as the preseason favorite to do it. Howard, a 6-foot-2 senior, averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the Wildcats. Her sophomore season, Howard went for 23.4 points a game — second highest in the country that year.

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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