Graham Hays, 379d

After breaking through to win NCAA title, A'ja Wilson and South Carolina must forge new identity

Women's College Basketball, South Carolina Gamecocks

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A few feet beyond the familiar roadside signage welcoming travelers to the state as they drive east on Interstate 20 is a new addition noting that South Carolina is home to the 2017 NCAA women's basketball champion. An identical green sign waits an hour away as you exit the interstate on the approach into Columbia. Still another sits in the city itself.

Make it all the way to the basketball offices on the campus of the University of South Carolina and a video screen replays scenes from the championship celebration in Dallas last April. Inside the adjacent practice gym, larger-than-life banners depicting last season's core quartet of Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray and A'ja Wilson watch over players on the court.

A year ago, South Carolina was a team with all of the pieces and very little of the experience necessary to win a championship. Now memories of success are everywhere you look, but after losing Coates, Davis and Gray to the WNBA, the question is whether the pieces now fit together as well as experience suggests they must.

"I know that we're very energized and very young," said Wilson, one of just two returning starters. "Some good and bad can come from that. We're young, so we can grow. At the same time, our system is young now. We have to kind of groom them into the way that we play, so we can get back to places like we did last year. ... It's tough with this generation because everybody's mind is going, everybody wants to play, everybody wants to get in. But it takes so much more than that.

"They don't even understand, but they will."

It is a significant start if she indeed understands her role. She is not the first All-American to win a title and encounter dramatically different circumstances in future seasons. Maya Moore did so after sharing top billing with Tina Charles at Connecticut. Odyssey Sims did it after Brittney Griner departed Baylor. But perhaps not since Diana Taurasi returned to UConn after Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams entered the WNBA has a player inherited a championship defense of quite this sort.

Wilson was South Carolina's leading scorer a season ago, but she didn't attempt the most shots. She wasn't the leading rebounder. She was the best player on a team with three candidates supremely overqualified to be second-best.

Now the only holdover from the quartet that accounted for nearly 70 percent of the team's points a season ago, she is both the likely preseason national player of the year and someone who will need to be that good for South Carolina to keep winning on a nightly basis. The local star who stayed home, this was always her program. But this is now more than ever her team.

"It's a tough role to have because people look at you to be that person all the time," Wilson said. "And you might not want to be that person all the time. But you have to dig inside."

Of course, she has at least some practice with that role. While Mississippi State's upset win against previously undefeated UConn in the Final Four changed the course of the season for all involved, South Carolina was waiting to take advantage of the opportunity only because it managed to reshuffle its ensemble after Coates was lost to injury for the postseason. The Wilson who totaled 36 points and 29 rebounds in the Final Four was ready for the spotlight.

"She knew we wouldn't have the services of Alaina Coates and she put us on her shoulders and willed us to a championship," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "She was demonstrative and just in the moment. I saw her shed any inhibitions that she had in wanting to be a star."

Without taking away from the contributions of Davis and Gray, the partnership between Coates and Wilson in many ways symbolically defined South Carolina in recent seasons. Wilson had the luxury both to be unselfish and to so often play as something more than a back-to-the-basket 6-foot-5 post in large part because she shared the court with a presence like Coates, a 6-4 center. So it makes some sense that the new order in Columbia is also evident in a new partnership.

Because even if figuring out its own new identity means South Carolina isn't asking Alexis Jennings to be a carbon copy of Coates, it does need her to help Wilson be the new Wilson.

"I think that my role is to contribute more of a low-post game," Jennings said. "A'ja, she's kind of more toward the free throw line, per se. She likes to face up more. I feel like I excel at back-to-the-basket play, and I can add a midrange component and potentially a 3-point shot."

South Carolina also returns sophomore guard Tyasha Harris from last season's starting lineup, but will need immediate contributions from newly eligible transfers Jennings (Kentucky) and guard Lindsey Spann (Penn State). After two seasons at Kentucky, playing against Coates and Wilson, and a redshirt year at South Carolina, the 6-3 Jennings is an experienced post. She also won a bronze medal with the United States in last fall's FIBA 3x3 World Championships in China, finishing as one of the event's leading scorers.

Jennings spent last season in a transfer's typical shadow existence. She could practice, Staley noting it was more than just scout team duty, but she had to watch games from afar and follow her own routine. Even when the team won a title in Dallas, Jennings spent part of her game day doing the same interval workout on a stationary bike that she had for months.

She was part of the championship, but her effort concentrated on being part of what followed.

"Alexis is a lot different than what we had," Staley said. "She's not as big as Alaina Coates. But she creates an incredible target. She gives our perimeter player the room, a zone, to throw imperfect passes. With Alaina, we could just throw it up and she'd just go grab it and finish. But [Jennings] commands so much space down there in the paint that she forces us to space off of her. It's good to have that low-post presence."

There are ways in which Staley wouldn't want a repeat of last season. She has made no secret that the group wasn't as competitive as she wanted, from drill to drill, as she put it. But the Gamecocks that showed up when the lights came on in big games. At some point, she accepted them for what they were and coached to those strengths. And that is the only way this season can be like last. Built around Wilson, it is a team that needs to find its own strengths.

Anyone who has seen Staley's look of exasperated consternation during games could have empathized with Harris when she drew that ire during a preseason practice.

"You think things are just going to happen for you, when you're going to be faced with something that's totally different than last year," Staley told the guard. "Because the novelty has worn off. You're no longer the freshman that nobody knows about. People are going to game plan for you. So what happens? Are you going to be ready?"

No one in Columbia knows that answer yet for this team. But there are plenty of signs around town that indicate what can happen if they answer correctly.

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