The South Carolina Gamecocks are right back where they were one year ago: the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Dawn Staley’s crew has been the hands-down favorite all season to win another national championship, and the Gamecocks are now just two games away from accomplishing that goal.
As the reigning national champion and the only team in Division I to go undefeated during the 2022-23 regular season, South Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament with lofty expectations. Those expectations have largely been met through the tournament’s first four rounds: The Gamecocks have won by an average of 22.5 points per game and were only truly challenged by Maryland in the Elite Eight.
THE DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS REMAIN UNDEFEATED#MarchMadness x @GamecockWBB pic.twitter.com/M4Hh6PZUv1— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 28, 2023
For anyone even slightly familiar with what has brought the Gamecocks success in recent seasons, not much has changed during their latest NCAA Tournament run. As a team, South Carolina has a clear identity and executes it better than anyone else in the country; the Gamecocks rely on unmatched depth in the frontcourt, athletic and physical defense on the perimeter and sheer willpower and activity on the boards to overwhelm opponents, ranking at or near the top of the Division I leaderboards in defensive rating (73.3 points allowed per 100 possessions; No. 2 in Division I), total rebounding rate (62.9 percent; No. 1) and blocked shot rate (20.3 percent; No. 1), according to Her Hoop Stats. They also rank No. 1 in the country in offensive rating (114.4), due mostly to the frequency at which they rebound the basketball on that end of the floor and how easily they get high-efficiency shots at the rim.
One look at the Gamecocks’ roster gives a good enough idea of how this is possible. South Carolina’s frontcourt rotation of Aliyah Boston (6-foot-5), Victaria Saxton (6-foot-2), Kamilla Cardoso (6-foot-7) and Laeticia Amihere (6-foot-4) is simply too much for opponents to handle for a full 40 minutes, and their stout interior presence allows top-tier athletes Zia Cooke and Brea Beal to be that much more aggressive on the perimeter, creating a defense that is more or less impenetrable, save for hot opponent jumpshooting — which, as South Carolina’s results have shown, is almost never sustainable to the point of competing with the Gamecocks’ depth for entire games.
Teams like these aren’t assembled overnight, though. Beal, Boston, Cooke and Amihere are all in their fourth seasons as Gamecocks, and Saxton is in her fifth. What South Carolina learned during its championship run in 2022 (and Final Four loss to Stanford in 2021) is on full display during every game it plays in 2023; the Gamecocks are a well-oiled basketball machine that has experienced both successes and failures on the biggest stage, and every bit of that experience has contributed to the team that currently boasts a perfect 36-0 record.
Staley hasn’t taken her foot off the gas pedal, either. Even after winning a national championship in 2022, she wanted her team to improve even further, so she scheduled a grueling non-conference schedule that included games against Maryland, Stanford, UCLA and UConn — all teams she anticipated the Gamecocks running into in March.
Not only did the results of those games — all South Carolina victories — contribute significantly to the Gamecocks remaining sharp in SEC play, but Staley’s choice to schedule Maryland and UCLA paid even more dividends when her team encountered those schools once again in the NCAA Tournament.
Clairvoyance? Perhaps. But Staley flat-out knows how to recruit, how to coach and how to build a program, and her Gamecocks are currently in their golden years thanks to her tutelage. South Carolina is the latest example of how the development of a team’s core talent through countless early challenges can yield the best possible results later on, and with each dominant victory, those results just keep getting more and more impressive for the Gamecocks. With just two more NCAA Tournament wins, they can join the rarefied air occupied only by back-to-back NCAA champions.