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South Carolina update: Is this the best Gamecock team of the Dawn Staley era?

Is this the best South Carolina team of the Dawn Staley era? The question might be premature, but it’s not totally preposterous. This deep and balanced Gamecock team is building a statistical resume that tops the best squads in school history.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Mississippi Valley State at South Carolina
Head coach Dawn Staley huddles her team before a game during the 2023-24 season.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Two SEC games. Two wins by an average of 21 points. The No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (14-0, 2-0) keep churning out wins while showing no weaknesses.

On the road against Florida in their SEC opener, South Carolina was propelled to the 89-66 win by senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, who was 4-for-5 from 3 on her way to a game-high 17 points. The Gamecocks welcomed Mississippi State to Columbia on Sunday afternoon, when the Bulldogs were treated to a behind-the-arc burst from junior guard Bree Hall. Hall went 3-for-4 from 3 as she led the Gamecocks with 15 points in the 85-66 victory.

South Carolina’s increased offensive prowess—in part due to the team’s improved proficiency from beyond the 3-point line—combined with their always on-point defense begs the question: Is this the best team of the Dawn Staley era?

Considering Staley has steered the Gamecocks to two national titles led by all-timers in A’ja Wilson (2016-17) and Aliyah Boston (2021-22), proposing such a possibility might seem preposterous. It’s also a bit premature; it’s still early January, leaving plenty of time for twists and turns that could alter our assessment of the Gamecocks. But, it’s not an absolutely crazy proposition. That this season’s squad is thriving due to depth and balance suggests their level of success is sustainable. In contrast, the title-winning teams were much more dependent on the individual excellence of Wilson and Boston. Staley now is equipped with a surfeit of solid players capable of rising to the occasion in March’s most crucial moments, which should make it more difficult for opponents to take down the nation’s top-ranked team.

Through 14 games, South Carolina’s statistical profile—based on both traditional and advanced stats—suggests that, by season’s end, the 2023-24 team might prove to be Staley’s best. Here’s an analysis of some of that stats that particularly stand out:

Sharpshooting South Carolina

Let’s begin with more on South Carolina’s 3-point shooting. Currently, the Gamecocks are the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, converting 41.9 percent of their 3s compared to 31.0 percent last season. It’s an astounding improvement.

However, even with their increased accuracy from behind the arc, South Carolina does not depend on the 3-ball to drive their offense, as their 16.7 attempts per game is tied for 262nd in the nation. Yet, that South Carolina’s shooters have to be guarded prevents opponents from packing the paint, the go-to defensive strategy against previous South Carolina squads. As such, there’s more space inside the arc, helping the Gamecocks shoot a higher percentage from 2-point range. Their 54.4 percent on 2s is a four percentage-point increase from last season; it’s also the best mark in school history.

All-round offensive dynamism

The Gamecocks aren’t averaging more than 90 points scored per game simply because of sharpshooting. Increased ball movement and pace also has contributed to South Carolina becoming the sixth highest-scoring offense in the nation at 90.4 points per game, sporting an offensive rating of 117.6. South Carolina is averaging 20.1 assists per game to 13.6 turnovers. Compared to last season, they’re averaging almost four more assists per game but only one more turnover. That’s good for a 1.47 assist-to-turnover ratio, a top-15 mark. They’re also averaging 76.1 possessions per game, which is more than five more scoring opportunities per game than last season.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that five Gamecocks are averaging double-digit points per game: senior center Kamilla Cardoso (13.6), Paopao (12.4), freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley (11.7), sophomore forward Chloe Kitts (10.5) and Hall (10.3). Sophomore guard Raven Johnson, with her 9.3 points per game, leads the team in assists with 5.5 per game, the most by a Gamecock since Ty Harris’ 5.7 in 2019-20. Three of her teammates also are averaging more than two dimes per game: Paopao (3.9), Cardoso (2.5) and Fulwiley (2.5).

From “stocks” to scores and more

The Gamecocks’ defense also deserves credit for their extra offensive oomph. South Carolina’s increase in pace and possessions benefits from their defensive playmaking. While defensive activity always has been a strength of Staley’s teams, this year’s squad has taken it to another level. South Carolina is averaging 9.4 steals and 9.3 blocks per game, with both program highs combining for an absurd 18.7 “stocks” per game. Johnson leads with way with 2.5 steals per game. Sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins barely edges Cardoso for the team lead in blocks. SWATkins rejects three shots per game, while Cardoso turns back 2.9.

In short, South Carolina enjoys a perfect feedback loop. Their ability to get stops or takeaways on one end results in easier scores on their other end, which then allows South Carolina to again set their defense, thereby restarting the cycle of success.

South Carolina resumes SEC play a Thursday, traveling to Missouri. Two seasons ago, the Gamecocks were tripped up on their post-Christmas jaunt to the other Columbia, their only regular-season loss in that championship season. So, expect Staley to drill her squad on the importance of taking the Tigers seriously, despite their 0-2 mark in the conference. On Monday, South Carolina hosts Kentucky, which is 8-8 overall and 1-1 in the SEC.

Stats and rankings collected from Her Hoop Stats and