South Carolina women's basketball: Preseason predictions revisited

On3 imageby:Chris Wellbaum04/02/24


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Before the season I made ten predictions for South Carolina’s upcoming season. With the season entering its final weekend, how did I do?

Prediction: A Gamecock will win SEC Sixth Woman of the Year
Why: I don’t know who because South Carolina hasn’t finalized its starting lineup, but it will be a Gamecock. Kamilla Cardoso took home the award last season, and Dawn Staley always likes having a big punch off the bench. The way South Carolina’s roster breaks down this season there will be some extremely talented players coming off the bench, especially at forward with Sania Feagin and Ashlyn Watkins or if MiLaysia Fulwiley builds on her exhibition performance.
I’ll be wrong if: There’s too much depth. Think of the 2021-22 season, when the Gamecocks were so deep that in each game a different player could be called on to play major minutes. That could happen this season too.

Right or wrong: I mean, Watkins should have won it. Florida’s Leilani Correa won it because she averaged 16.9 points per game. Watkins didn’t score as much, but she was arguably the most important reserve on an undefeated team. I think there may have been some Gamecock fatigue. Wrong, but salty.

Prediction: South Carolina will add an SEC banner
Why: Few coaches put as much emphasis on winning their conference as Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks may not sweep the regular season and tournament again, but they’ll add at least one trophy to the case. It helps that the SEC tournament, which some other coaches deemphasize – most notably defending national champion Kim Mulkey – is in Greenville again. 

I’ll be wrong if: The margin for error in the regular season tends to be about one game. Lose one game you shouldn’t and you need help. That could easily happen to inexperienced South Carolina. Suddenly you end up a four seed and the tournament road is much more difficult. 

Right or wrong: Not only did South Carolina sweep the regular and tournament titles, the Gamecocks set a new record for consecutive SEC wins. Like Tennessee in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there is one team at the top and then everybody else. Right. 

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Prediction: The sellout streak continues
Why: Hosting UConn on Super Bowl Sunday, for one thing. It is the most obvious candidate to extend South Carolina’s streak of having at least one sellout every season since 2015-16 (excluding the pandemic season). It’s a marquee matchup plus it will have the full weight of the ESPN hype machine building it up. There could be other candidates, like the season finale against Tennessee.
I’ll be wrong if: Columbia is swallowed up into the depths of the earth in the very near future.

Right or wrong: Five sellouts, the second-best average attendance in NCAA history, and the two highest-attended games in arena history. South Carolina didn’t reach its 16 for 16 goal of 16,000 tickets or break the all-time attendance record. It’s always good to leave some room for improvement, and I will already predict that it will happen next season. Right.

Prediction: South Carolina will lose 3-5 games
Why: The non-conference schedule is loaded. The SEC is loaded. The travel and extracurriculars of the Paris trip could result in a distracted team for Notre Dame and the home opener against Maryland. There will be some losses. But, since 2013-14, South Carolina has lost more than five games only twice: 2017-18 (7) and the dysfunctional 2018-19 (10). The first team was hopelessly thin after Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis left early for the WNBA and Lindsey Spann suffered a season-ending injury. The latter was, well, a mess. So five is the upper limit. Three is the lower limit because there will be growing pains. Fortunately, the selection committee cares less about who you lost to and more about who you beat, and the Gamecocks have plenty of chances for big wins.
I’ll be wrong if: The growing pains last all season. There are certainly more than five teams on the schedule capable of beating the Gamecocks. 

Right or wrong: Whoops. I really thought they would lose a couple in non-conference play. Wrong, so very wrong.

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Prediction: South Carolina makes the Final Four
Why: Before the exhibition, this said Elite Eight. I’m usually the one screaming don’t trust an exhibition, but South Carolina looked really good. The field is wide-open this year, with probably 8-10 teams that have legitimate Final Four expectations, but the Gamecocks are as talented as all of them if not more.
I’ll be wrong if: That wide-open field means some very good teams are going to be on the outside looking in. It could be the Gamecocks.

Right or wrong: At least I redeemed myself with this prediction. Right.

Prediction: Raven Johnson leads the SEC in assists per game
Why: I’m a Raven truther. She makes passes other point guards can’t even imagine. Everyone likes her. She forces her teammates to be better. She is fearless and confident, and this is her team. The Gamecocks will be more of an uptempo team this season, which means even more assists for Raven. Last season she averaged 3.4 assists per game despite only playing 18.7 minutes. She should play 25-30 minutes this season, which equates to about 5 assists per game. That’s a conservative estimate (she had nine in 20 minutes in the exhibition), but still more than the 4.6 that led the SEC last season.
I’ll be wrong if: The Gamecocks play selfishly. Raven can make her teammates better, but they also need to let her take charge. If everyone tries to go one-on-one she won’t have an opportunity to make passes. It’s what we saw at the AmeriCup Tournament.

Right or wrong: Johnson finished third in the SEC with 4.89 assists per game. Mama Dembele led with 6.52. Te-Hina Paopao finished ninth with 3.66. South Carolina certainly wasn’t selfish. Instead, it was so good at sharing the ball that others got some of Johnson’s assists. Wrong.

Prediction: Ashlyn Watkins dunks at least four times
Why: She dunked twice last season, and if her playing time doubles then so should her dunks. Plus she has had an outstanding offseason and by all accounts is poised for a huge year.
I’ll be wrong if: Dunks take a little luck. It’s possible Watkins doesn’t get the runouts or there’s the flyby that makes her hesitate just enough to not throw it down.

Right or wrong: She almost had four. Watkins dunked against Kentucky and at least three close calls. She had a breakaway against Vanderbilt where she was fouled and the Vanderbilt players said later their only goal was to not get dunked on. Watkins also had breakaways in two of the Tennessee games but settled for a layup because the scores were close. There was also once in the tournament when I swore she was going to have a putback dunk, but she held back at the last second. Wrong.

Prediction: South Carolina shoots at least 35% from three
Why: 35% is the best single-season team average the Gamecocks have had under Staley, and that came in 2019-20. South Carolina shot 31% as a team last season, but has improved the three-point shooting at every starting position except center. Te-Hina Paopao, a high-volume and high-percentage shooter, will be the biggest difference-maker, but freshmen backups MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson should also contribute long-range shooting.
I’ll be wrong if: There is almost no doubt South Carolina will be a better three-point shooting team, but the team percentage tends to be less about the good shooters and more about the bad shooters opponents can goad into shooting a lot. Think Brea Beal during her first three seasons or Raven Johnson and Kierra Fletcher last year.

Right or wrong: I was almost so right I’m wrong. South Carolina shot just under 40% from three and was first or second in the nation most of the season. Paopao and Tessa were as good as promised, and Raven and Bree Hall improved significantly. Right.

Prediction: Tessa Johnson is the new fam favorite
Why: With Olivia Thompson off traveling the world, the role is open. Tessa has an engaging personality, a quirky (to Southerners) accent, and a big smile that fans will love. She’s also a knockdown shooter who may not play major minutes, but that will only endear her to the fans even more.
I’ll be wrong if: It’s hometown hero MiLaysia Fulwiley instead.

Right or wrong: It was definitely Fulwiley. Tessa might be a media favorite though, because she is gregarious, easily amused, and enjoys the interaction. But it’s Fulwiley. She’s a tornado in personalized Curry Edition sneakers and everyone watches her every move in anticipation. Wrong

Prediction: The season is going to be lots of fun
Why: Last season was almost boring – the Gamecocks were so good the only thing that mattered was whether they could repeat. Even the undefeated regular season got overlooked because South Carolina was just trying to stay in front of LSU in the SEC race. This season is wide-open with players who have teased us with their talent before and now get to be the stars, a bumper crop of newcomers, and a schedule full of major opponents.
I’ll be wrong if: It all falls apart. The players who shined in limited roles aren’t ready for the bright lights, and the team never finds its identity (like 2019).

Right or wrong: This might have been the most fun since the Freshies’ first season. The big personalities on and off the court, the daycare vibe, the unpredictability and unexpected brilliance, the entertaining basketball, and most of all watching the players come into their own. Right.

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