South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley had a question that kept bothering her this offseason: Can nice players win a championship?
Staley, in her 13th year with the program, will have the chance to find out with her Gamecocks ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 entering the season. They're also predicted to win the Southeastern Conference title for what would be the sixth time in eight years.
Staley appreciates the skill, smarts and relentless preparation of her star players, such as Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, both of them preseason All-SEC selections. Still, there's that question of temperament that gnaws at Staley.
"They all have a killer mentality, but they're super nice," Staley said. "It almost bothers me how nice they are."
Staley's "nice" team dominated during the 2019-20 season, rolling to a 32-1 record, sweeping the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and rising to a No. 1 ranking before the coronavirus shut down sports before the NCAA tournament could tip off. The Gamecocks will start 2020-21 where they left off, but this time being No. 1 in the nation represents a first — they've never been on top in the preseason AP Top 25.
To finish on top in the SEC, South Carolina will once more have to hold off several talented teams looking to derail the Gamecocks' run of championships. And as usual, the SEC is likely to have an impact on the national championship chase.
No. 6 Mississippi State, which reached three straight Final Fours and won the SEC title in 2019, could be South Carolina's biggest challenger despite the loss of energetic coach Vic Schafer, who left for Texas this past spring. His replacement in Starkville is Nikki McCray-Penson, most recently the head coach at Old Dominion but a Staley assistant for a decade (2008-17) and a former Tennessee point guard.
There are three other SEC teams in the AP Top 25: No. 11 Kentucky, No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 13 and No. 14 Arkansas.
Staley acknowledged her latest team lost some of its "punch" in fiery point guard Tyasha Harris and never-back-down forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, both of them early picks in the most recent WNBA draft. They were freshmen on South Carolina's national championship team in 2017 and started a combined 189 games in their time with the Gamecocks. Their experience and leadership will be the hardest things to replace and will come only with time, Staley said.
Texas transfer Destiny Littleton, a redshirt junior guard, returns to the court at South Carolina after a year off due to NCAA requirements, with some of that time spent rehabbing an ankle injury.
The 6-foot-5 Boston was second in scoring (12.5 points a game) for the Gamecocks and led them in rebounding (9.4 per game) and blocked shots (81 total) as a freshman in 2019-20. She is especially eager for games to start because last season had an unsatisfying finish despite the Gamecocks winning their last 26 games before the shutdown.
"It just happened so abruptly," Boston said.
She understood why, of course, and spent the offseason improving her outside shot and her strength and aggressiveness down low.
As far as nice, Boston said just wait until the action starts: "We're all bringing it this year."
SEC coaches picked South Carolina to finish on top, with the predicted runner-up Kentucky, which is led by preseason player of the Rhyne Howard, a former Bradley Central High School standout from Cleveland, Tennessee. The junior point guard recently became the program's first preseason AP All-American and was an All-American last season.
Texas A&M was picked to finish third, with Arkansas and Mississippi State rounding out the top five. Tennessee, which went 21-10 last season in former player Kellie Harper's debut as coach, was picked sixth, with LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt and Auburn completing the order.
Boston and Howard were joined on the coaches' preseason All-SEC first team by Rennia Davis (Tennessee), Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas), Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State), N'dea Jones (Texas A&M), Khayla Pointer (LSU) and Unique Thompson (Auburn).
Joining South Carolina's Cooke on the second team were Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Aijha Blackwell (Missouri), Lavender Briggs (Florida), Jessika Carter (Mississippi State), Destiny Slocum (Arkansas), Jasmine Walker (Alabama) and Kayla Wells (Texas A&M).
While McCray-Penson has had a few months to settle in at Mississippi State, which went 27-6 and reached the SEC tournament title game last season, another former Lady Vols standout experienced a sudden elevation in the SEC last week. When longtime Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell announced he was stepping down for health reasons, assistant Kyra Elzy was promoted to interim head coach.
The Kentucky native was already in her second stint as assistant head coach with the Wildcats — she held the same title at Tennessee and has also been an assistant at Kansas and Western Kentucky — before being thrust into an even bigger role, and she received a strong endorsement from athletic director Mitch Barnhart. She'll try to add to what was a good run under Mitchell, whose team went 22-8 last season.
"We're ready to enjoy the fruits of her labor and how hard she's prepared," Barnhart said of Elzy. "We're anxious to watch her."
In Knoxville, Harper's team will try to buck their midpack prediction and what is starting to become a disturbing trend for Tennessee fans: The Lady Vols were nowhere to be found in the preseason AP Top 25 for a second straight year.
When it happened last fall, the program ended a streak of 42 years starting the season in the rankings. Although Tennessee wound up tying for third in the SEC standings in Harper's debut season, it wasn't enough to garner the necessary votes to be ranked in this year's first poll.