COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dawn Staley has plenty of things she'll have to teach South Carolina's young team. Giving top effort on each possession won't be one of them, though.
The Gamecocks fifth-year coach says her players have gone hard since practice began last month and that's allowed Staley and her assistants to put in her system faster than in other seasons.
"We're probably further along than we've been even with the experienced team we had last year," Staley said Friday. "I don't know if we're great at all of (the plays), but we're pretty good."
But that doesn't mean everything has gone smoothly, Staley cautioned.
The Gamecocks lost last year's top two scorers in Markeshia Grant and La'Keisha Sutton who accounted for more than a third of the team's points in their breakthrough 25-10 season. Staley's got five newcomers on the team, four of them freshmen.
While the pace of practice has been strong, the execution hasn't been perfect. Staley thinks that can come in time.
"They're a good, coachable team. They listen. They want to learn. They want to get better," she said. "It's a fun team to coach."
Staley and the Gamecocks had a lot of fun last season, reaching milestones the program hadn't ever, in some cases, accomplished before.
The 25 victories were the most in 10 years. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 and made it to the round of 16 before losing to Florida.
One of the biggest landmark was a 64-60 win at Tennessee, the Gamecocks first-ever victory in Knoxville that ended a 40-game losing streak to the Lady Vols.
Staley likes what she's seen so far with the season-opener a week away. Still, that doesn't mean she's ready to predict runaway success for the Gamecocks.
"Every year, it takes on a life of its own," Staley said. "We've got a lot of young kids and we don't want to make them feel like we live and die by their performance. Our experienced players have to play."
It's taken a while for Staley to build that experience.
She landed one of the country's top prospects in 6-foot-5 Kelsey Bone, who became the SEC's newcomer of the year in 2010. But Bone transferred to Texas A&M soon after her breakout season.
It was a similar story the next year with highly regarded recruit Kayla Brewer, who played just seven games as a freshman before choosing to leave for Texas.
Grant and Sutton, along with seniors Charenee Stephens and Courtney Newton, got the Gamecocks going a year ago by averaging nearly half the team's 61.7 points a game. This season, Staley says her seniors in guard Ieasia Walker and forward Ashley Bruner are capable of rising to that challenge.
"They understand what we're all about," Staley said. "I think they want to go out with a bang, just like last season our seniors went out with a bang."
That will most likely depend on how quickly South Carolina's newest players get up to speed. Freshman guard Khadijah Sessions was one of the country's top point guards who helped Myrtle Beach High to championships her sophomore and junior years.
Tiffany Mitchell from Charlotte was one of North Carolina's top high school players, averaging more than 19 points a game last season.
Both Sessions and Mitchell made the Parade All-America team.
Another talented freshman for Staley is Asia Dozier, who won the South Carolina Gatorade player of the year after averaging 18.6 points, 4.5 assists and 4 steals at Spring Valley High last year.
Bruner said the players are excited about building on last year's showing. "It's pressure, but I think it's good pressure," she said. "I think we're all ready to see what we can do against other teams. It definitely does fuel us in a positive way."
Dozier said the younger players are eager to show they can live up to last season'.
"We have a lot of youth, but we're not allowed to use that as an excuse," Dozier said. "We're being held to very high standards because of their accomplishments last year."