COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina players won't have to wait for fans and experts to raise expectations about what's ahead for the Gamecocks — coach Dawn Staley is doing that herself.
"I'm talking to our team about going to the Final Four and winning the national championship," Staley said.
The coach might not be the only one after the Gamecocks' landmark season and heralded group of newcomers. South Carolina won 29 games, the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the last two accomplishments firsts in program history.
Staley's always sets the bar high for her the Gamecocks— and this time it appears they have the talent to achieve their goals.
The Gamecocks lose just one player in reserve forward Wilka Montout to a team that featured SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, SEC freshman and co-sixth player of the year Alaina Coates and another all-SEC first team pick in Aleighsa Welch.
Add to that three McDonald's All-Americans in the No. 2 ranked recruiting class by ESPN, including the country's top high-school prospect in 6-foot-5 A'ja Wilson.
Staley's not sure how next year's team will handle what figures a yearlong stay among the country's best and another run at the top of the SEC. But she believes her returnees understand a bit better what it takes to move on.
There were celebrations when the Gamecocks clinched the SEC crown at home in late February and when their top seed in the regional was revealed a few weeks later. But the Gamecocks stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their final six games, including getting ousted by North Carolina in the NCAA regional semifinals.
It was a disappointing end to a stellar season and Staley hopes her returning players carry those memories into offseason preparation.
"Our coaches and players got a little taste of what it takes to win a national championship," she said. "Sometimes you just say it because it's the norm to say. But when you get close and add some pieces that were missing to a team that was very, very good you can almost feel a little step closer to getting it.
"It'll fuel you to work harder in the offseason."
Wilson, from Columbia, South Carolina, is the recruiting class' centerpiece, but not the only talented player joining this group. Point guard Bianca Cuevas of Nazareth Regional High in the Bronx is considered a tough, gritty leader in Staley's mode while 6-4 Jatarie White of Charlotte, North Carolina, will give the Gamecocks four players 6-4 or taller next season.
The other newcomers are guards Kaydra Duckett of Columbia and Doniyah Cliney of Newark, New Jersey.
Staley expects some hard decisions about playing time but is excited about the pace and ferocity of practices as the Gamecocks push for time on the court.
This past season, Coates was a difference maker who led the team in rebounds at 8.4 a game yet started just one of 35 games. Staley might not be able to afford to sit the talented Wilson, who averaged nearly 35 points a game and picked the Gamecocks over national champ Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Cuevas will challenge rising junior Khadijah Sessions for playing time at point guard. And if White doesn't start, she'll likely slide into the sixth-player role that Coates performed so ably in last season should the sophomore moving into the starting lineup.
Staley's already begun thinking about lineups and combinations.
"I know this for sure, nobody will play by default," she said. "Like we've had in the past, you're going to have earn all your playing time and you're going to have to productive and that's a good place to be."
Staley knows there'll be headaches, particularly if people feel they're time's getting cut in favor of others.
"Everybody wants to contribute, but our program is at a place where our depth chart is incredible," she said. "Our players understand that."
In the end, those who can help Staley's Gamecocks climb to the top of the mountain will hit the court.
"I don't care what the starting lineup is," Staley said. "It's 'Can this combination help us win the national championship.'"