COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is sure of two things this season — there’s more parity than ever at the top of women’s basketball and her Gamecocks likely won’t remain No. 1 for long.
Staley and the Gamecocks (10-0) are the top-ranked women’s team in the land for the fourth consecutive week. Yet, for Staley, it’s a tenuous position.
Besides the teams they’ll face once league play begins in the competitive Southeastern Conference, her Gamecocks don’t pound opponents the way juggernauts like Connecticut, Baylor and Tennessee were known to dominate when they held the top spot.
No. 2 could give No. 1 a run, probably No. 3 — but when the Huskies, Bears, and Lady Vols were peaking, there was a distinctive gap between them and the rest of the top 10.
“That’s just not us,” Staley said of her top-ranked Gamecocks.
Only 12 different teams had been ranked No. 1 since the top 25 became a writers’ poll in 1994-95 before the Gamecocks’ rise this season.
South Carolina’s flashiest win was a nail-biting, 51-50 victory at No. 13 Duke earlier this month, with the Gamecocks rallying from four points down in the final half minute to stay undefeated.
No. 3 Texas (9-0) and No. 4 Texas A&M (11-0) join the Gamecocks as undefeated, top 10 teams. But that won’t last as the state rivals face off Sunday.
The elite have shown they’re not invincible this season.
No. 6 North Carolina (9-1) saw its perfect start end Tuesday night in a 70-55 home loss to No. 16 Oregon State.
Connecticut (6-1), which sits right behind South Carolina in the Top 25, suffered an early season setback at Stanford. But after the No. 7 Cardinal beat the Huskies, Stanford (6-3) fell to Texas in its next game and this week lost at Chattanooga. Connecticut then rebounded with an impressive win against No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1).
No. 8 Kentucky owns wins against No. 9 Baylor and No. 10 Louisville — but the Wildcats also lost to unranked Illinois.
So far this season Top 25 teams have lost 15 games to unranked opponents which is up 50 percent from last season, but still short of the 23 times it happened to this point in the season two years ago according to STATS.
With all the upsets so far, women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli sees parity in the game. She said Connecticut’s early loss opened the eyes of fans and other programs that this season could be something other than a Huskies’ runaway.
“That gave everyone in women’s basketball hope,” Antonelli said.
Connecticut’s run — the Huskies have nine national titles and five undefeated seasons since 1994-95 — also dominates the attention of women’s basketball followers, often overshadowing the growth of the game at other schools, Antonelli said.
— Dawn Staley
“Now with Connecticut’s loss, it’s given people the chance to think, ‘Why not us?'” she said.
Added Staley: “I think it’s great for women’s basketball to have that, to have that possibility” of many high-level teams. But I don’t think people want that because they’re used to seeing the same old people.”
Staley, 44, brings a rare perspective to the conversation.
She and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey are the only women to play for and then coach a No. 1 team. Staley led Virginia to the top of the polls as a player; Mulkey led Louisiana Tech to two national championships as a player, including the inaugural NCAA title in 1982.
As a coach, Mulkey also was part of that same, old crowd Staley refers to, leading Baylor to two national titles and 12 seasons with 25 wins in her 14 years in charge.
Mulkey, 52, said because of the experience at the top as a player and a coach, “You know how demanding you have to be as a coach, and you have walked in their shoes.”
For Staley, she’s unsure if there is a cookie-cutter formula for what a No. 1 team looks like these days. It used to simply be the best players went to certain programs. That’s changing.
The Gamecocks, though, are a strong model to follow.
South Carolina’s roster includes defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell; 6-foot-4 Alaina Coates, last year’s SEC freshman of the year; and 6-foot-5 freshman A’ja Wilson, the country’s top college prospect who had offers to Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Despite South Carolina’s size and experience, Antonelli expects a weekly shuffling of the top 10 once conference play starts in full, “maybe more than in a lot of years.”
That doesn’t surprise Staley, who is fairly certain her team could fall short in top 25 because of their style of play — even if they win. She describes the Gamecocks style as more blue collar than elite. She’s also positive that even with the Duke victory, the Gamecocks would’ve been bumped from No. 1 if Notre Dame hadn’t fallen to Connecticut earlier that weekend.
Still, the feisty Staley isn’t too worried about style points.
“I think we stay in the real,” she said. “We’re not coaching from what UConn looks like, from what Notre Dame looks like, only what we look like.”