COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina's players rolled their eyes and snorted laughter. Their coach Dawn Staley used to be quiet and shy?
"I can't even really imagine that," freshman post player Alaina Coates said.
That's because the Gamecocks never knew Staley when she was a college player like them. They only know the world traveler and Olympic gold medalist who is a successful coach. They will tell you that it was pretty easy for them to be confident in Staley's vision for South Carolina women's basketball.
But Staley gives them, and their parents, more credit than that.
"Some people just couldn't envision us at this point where we are: becoming a top-10 team in the country," Staley said. "The ones who are here, they really believed."
South Carolina (23-2) is No. 4 this week in the Associated Press poll and atop the SEC at 11-1. There is still a gauntlet to run in this challenging league: The Gamecocks finish the regular season with Kentucky, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Then there's the free-for-all known as the SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga.
"It's not my role to say who's the best team in the conference; that's going to work itself out," Arkansas coach Tom Collen said after a recent loss to the Gamecocks. "But I would say South Carolina has a good shot to make that statement. I think Dawn has done a terrific job, and she's probably got a Final Four-type team."
Staley made it that far three times while playing for Virginia (1990, '91 and '92). South Carolina has reached the Final Four once -- in the AIAW days in 1980 -- but has not finished higher than tied for second in the SEC. And the Gamecocks have never played in the SEC tournament final, let alone won that title.
What the Gamecocks have done so far this season, though, indicates a program that seems to have arrived as a national contender. It's what Staley pictured when she took over in 2008, following eight seasons and six NCAA tournament appearances at Temple.
"Those first two years here were really, really hard," Staley said of her 10-18 and 14-15 records to start her South Carolina tenure. "We would look at each other as a staff sometimes and say, What do we do?
"But we kept fighting. We knew what we were doing would work. We just had to get the players who could buy into the vision we had."
And they are there now: like juniors Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam, valuable starters who've also been mentors to the gifted rookie Coates. And sophomores Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier, who form the rest of the starting lineup.
Also redshirt sophomore Tina Roy and redshirt freshman Tiffany Davis, strong guards off the bench who've filled in on a handful of starts. You could really list the whole roster, because it's a team where everyone seems very engaged in what's going on.
There's only one senior, reserve forward Wilka Mountout, so South Carolina is not a peaking group of very experienced players. It is a young squad still on the rise.
"A lot of people didn't necessarily understand why I chose USC," Welch said. "I knew Coach Staley was in the process of turning this team around. My senior year of high school, they made it to the WNIT.
"I kept up a lot with who they were recruiting. I played AAU and high school basketball against El, Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah and Asia. These were very talented players. I wanted to be on a team that was able to maximize our potential. I think we're on our way to doing that. It feels great to see it all unfolding the way I saw it when I was in high school."
Welch is from Goose Creek, S.C., just outside Charleston. And six other players on the roster are from South Carolina, including Sessions, Dozier and Coates. Mitchell is from Charlotte, N.C., about 90 miles to the north.
When Staley took the job, she and her staff did not have recruiting ties to the Palmetto State. That became their first priority. They began making connections all over South Carolina: from Chester to Myrtle Beach, from Irmo to Monck's Corner. From the mountains of the northwest, across the Piedmont, to the coasts of the Grand Strand and Lowcountry. To build South Carolina the program, they had to immerse themselves in South Carolina the state.
"It was mainly looking at how Coach [Steve] Spurrier did it with the football team," Staley said of her recruiting philosophy with the Gamecocks. "He started with just the best South Carolina players. So it was really important for us to try to lock down the state. So they would want to stay and win a national championship here, ultimately. We can recruit regionally and get national-level talent."
There has always been competition for the best players from South Carolina and surrounding region, mostly from other SEC and ACC schools, including in-state Clemson. (Staley's former Virginia teammate Audra Smith is in her first year as coach at Clemson, by the way.)
So for the Gamecocks to become front-runners for that talent, the program had to be seen as high-level winner. And it was far from that when Staley came to Columbia.
South Carolina had 10 postseason appearances from 1978 to 1991, bridging the AIAW and NCAA eras. But for the next 20 seasons, the Gamecocks made it to the NCAA tournament just twice. And that was in back-to-back years, 2002 and '03.
The start of the drop-off coincided with South Carolina's move from the Metro Conference to the SEC for the 1991-92 season. When Staley took over after the 2008 season, the Gamecocks were coming off a five-year stretch in which they finished 12th twice, seventh, eighth and ninth in the SEC. They had become somewhat irrelevant in their conference and were a nonentity, frankly, on the national scene.
"I am learning how to build: It's through patience," Staley said. "It's made me a more patient coach and person to be able to see it through. It hurt to go through it early on. But every year we got better. We had a bright spot."
After losing records those first two seasons, the Gamecocks were 18-15 overall and 8-8 in the SEC in 2011, reaching the WNIT's second round.
Then in 2012, they advanced all the way to the NCAA Sweet 16, after a 25-10 regular season with a 10-6 league mark. Last year, South Carolina was 25-8 and 11-5, making it to the NCAA's second round.
The 5-foot-9 Mitchell is the team's top scorer, averaging 15.3 points. She also leads the Gamecocks in assists (91) and steals (55). Her field goal percentage has risen from 37.9 as a freshman to 53.0 this season. She is a strong candidate for SEC player of the year.
In a way, Staley was inadvertently "recruiting" Mitchell before she was even a college head coach. Mitchell was a fan of the former Charlotte Sting WNBA franchise, for which Staley played.
"I looked up to her growing up," Mitchell said of Staley. "We played the same position. My godmother was friends with [former Sting player] Andrea Stinson, and she would take me to games. I saw coach Staley, and I liked her game. I would try to do things she did. Just seeing her play inspired me."
Welch is the backbone of this squad. She recognized leadership was needed with seniors like Ieasia Walker -- a key player in Staley's elevation of the program -- graduating after last season.
So Welch is one of Gamecocks who can now say things like, "We're not giving our full effort today," and even if there are grumbles, other players listen. Welch has also paid close attention to every teammate's personality and how best to communicate with her. And she has taken Coates under her wing.
"When Aleighsa first got here, she played hard and practiced hard, but she wasn't really giving of herself," Staley said. "I think last year, she saw how much time our leaders put in for the betterment of our team. She knew coming into her junior year, she would have to become that leader."
With a mother who spent two decades in the Navy, Welch had a very good example to follow.
"I talked to her a lot about leading this year," Welch said of her mom, Sharell Welch. "She said: 'You're not always going to make the popular decisions. But there is always that person who needs to say the hard things that nobody wants to hear.'
"My mom has worked in hostile environments, and she learned to stand her ground. She said every leader has to have that respect, but you have to give that respect back to people too."
Staley would be the first to tell a player, Listen to your mama. Sometimes coaches will joke that parents are a "necessary evil" in recruiting players, and they may even prefer to keep moms and dads at a distance.
Staley takes the opposite approach: She recruits the parents as hard as the players.
"We've got some incredible parents that have our backs," Staley said. "I will call them, and vice versa. I am trying to help raise their daughters, but I don't know everything about their child and I'm not going to try to just figure it all out on my own. I have a valuable resource to help me.
"It sounds cliché, but it takes a village. We understand why their kids are here; it's because of the parents. We're not going to take them out of the equation."
The long haul
Even though it wasn't quick enough for Staley, the turnaround at South Carolina has, in fact, been pretty quick by any reasonable standard. And it has lured other programs interested in hiring Staley. However, after last season, she agreed to a contract extension at South Carolina through 2019.
"I didn't want to leave and not see this through," Staley said of that decision. "I'd like to see things develop and blossom into something special. We have everything we need to be successful: the support of administrators and fans, and we have made inroads with all the coaches here in the state of South Carolina.
"We were in the door with the recruiting class we just signed. All the things were lining up to take the next step."
The Gamecocks have commitments from four incoming players, led by center Jatarie White, a former teammate of Mitchell's from Providence Day School in Charlotte. White is the No. 7 overall prospect by espnW HoopGurlz in this senior class. The top-ranked prep senior, 6-5 forward A'ja Wilson, is right in the Gamecocks' backyard in Hopkins, S.C., just outside of Columbia proper. Wilson has yet to make a decision, but South Carolina is in her final four schools.
All of that is the promising future. But the here and now is very good for the Gamecocks.
"I don't think there are a lot of teams in the country that have the depth that they do at the low block," said Collen of facing Ibiam and Coates, who are both 6-4, and the 6-foot Welch, who plays taller.
Welch is averaging 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds. Coates is at 12.1 and 7.8. Ibiam averages 9.5 and 6.6, and leads the team with 66 blocked shots.
"Then there are the guards they run out there; they are very solid from the 3-point line," Collen added. "Dawn's got kids who take good care of the basketball, and they could play at whatever pace they want. She's teaching them to be very deliberate, because I think when you get in to the NCAA [tournament], the team that can play half-court basketball and execute in situations is going to advance."
And whether it's this year or down the road, advancing a long way is South Carolina's mission. Staley didn't win an NCAA title as a player, despite coming agonizingly close with the Cavaliers. But she is constructing a program to give her that chance as a coach.
"It's been a lot of fun," Mitchell said. "That's why I chose South Carolina; I knew they were a growing school and wanted to be a part of it. Watching Coach Staley as a player, I knew what kind of mindset she had. She's done things in her career that I wish to do.
"We're having a good season so far but just want to finish strong. I wasn't sure that it would happen this soon, but we're thankful it is."