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Dawn Staley diary: ‘We went back to the drawing board’

Coach discusses how South Carolina has rebounded since its surprising loss to NC State

With college basketball back, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is picking up where she left off. For the first time in school history, the Gamecocks started the year as the No. 1 team in the nation. South Carolina is currently 4-1 and ranked No. 5 (Associated Press).

Throughout the season, Staley will share her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that will be unlike any other in college basketball history. In this installment, Staley discusses how her team has rebounded since its surprising loss to NC State on Dec. 3 and shares her thoughts on whether the college basketball season should continue.

Sometimes you’ve got to get your players’ attention. I did that after our game against NC State.

There wasn’t anything that I said in the news conference that I didn’t say in the locker room. It was almost verbatim.

I did read some tweets about, ‘Save that for the locker room.’ But if my players don’t have any issue with it, then nobody else really should have an issue with it.

If anybody has followed me and my coaching career, which consists of 21 years, I’m the same way. I think I’m pretty consistent with how I handle our players. I’ve been an open book for as long as I’ve been coaching. My players and our coaching staff, we’ve got a great relationship.

Was I frustrated? Absolutely. When you play a big game like that, you want to play your best. You want to give yourself a chance to win the game. I just didn’t think we did that.

Anybody that’s watched our team play, they know that that was not indicative of the South Carolina team that we’ve coached this year, last year, the year before.

Zia Cooke reached out to me shortly after the game. She just wanted to know my thoughts on her play. We talked for about 45 minutes, just about basketball, and teaching and having her understand what we want for her – short term and long term. Zia has an appetite for wanting to be the best. She’s not afraid to ask what I thought. She knows if she’s asking me what I thought, I’m going to give the truth to her.

I said, ‘Zia, can you get to anywhere you want on the floor?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Sometimes it takes you 10 dribbles to get there, but if you could cut it to four, it makes you more lean.’ Then you’ve got to give them the big picture: ‘The big picture is no one on this level, or the next level, is going to stand around for you to take 10 dribbles to get to where you need to go because it just takes away too much rhythm from everybody else.’

This is exactly how you’re supposed to coach. It’s exactly how young people should ask and want authentic conversation. Although it could be critical, when you have a thirst for learning, you don’t care. You just want to hear it and you want to work on it.

She comes back the next two days in practice, then we play, and look, she shot 50% from the floor. It would have been 60 if she didn’t take two ill-advised shots, but she’s still learning. I want her to be the best 2-guard in the country.

This is a process. This is a process for everybody.

Everybody took that loss hard, all of them. Aliyah [Boston], I told her, ‘I’m not really worried about you as far as points. What we have to work on is continually putting you in situations where people are going to take your space away and arm you with the things that you need to do when they do that. Stand strong, then break through and pivot your way through and play strong.’ Did she do that against Iowa State? Absolutely.

I can’t go out and say our team sucks and not arm them with stuff to unsuck. This is what we do. We went back to the drawing board.

I’ve just been really happy that we got a chance to play probably more games than anyone else around the country. We had no cancellations, knock on wood. It’s been great just being in that mindset of playing and preparing.

We can say that we’re doing a great job at planning and adhering to the protocols, but luck does have a lot to do with it. With as many cancellations that are going on, luck has something to do with it. Adherence to the protocols, that’s something to do with it. Just changing your lifestyle momentarily, it has something to do with it.

Our players really hold each other accountable when it comes to this because they want to play. They don’t want any stoppage of play. With certain variables, we have some control. Others, we don’t, especially when we go in and out of places that are on the road. You look at our men’s program and they’re shut down for however many days it is at this point. They came off the road, so you just never know.

There is some hesitation. There is some reservation. When we went to South Dakota, everybody was like, ‘Well, why? Why would you put yourself in harm’s way? Why would you take your kids there? Don’t do it.’ I said, ‘At the South Dakota tournament, we were going to be tested.’ We tested twice in three days that we were there. We tested before we went. We never left the hotel. They created a bubble. There was very little contact with the outside. I just thought it was probably the safest place to do it.

Our team has kept that routine from the South Dakota trip. I’m glad that was our first trip. We started off seeing what we needed to do to try to maintain, just being as safe as possible.

Going to Iowa State, I was a little hesitant because it was different. People were free to come and go as they please in the hotel. I don’t leave the hotel.

Hopefully, if we have to go on the road in the SEC, it can go as smoothly as our two road trips.

Of course the question facing everyone is, should we even be playing.

It’s hard to answer that question because, from our perspective, we’ve been doing what we need to do. We’ve stayed out of harm’s way thus far. It doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods. As we continue, are we rolling the dice? Maybe … maybe.

Ultimately, our players’ safety is our top priority. I can see a place of shutting everything down. But if you shut down now, when do you ramp back up? When is it really safe? If we shut down, then we should shut down for the remainder of the season. I’m not one that would want to come back two or three months down the road wanting to put our players in harm’s way to get hurt physically, just as COVID-19 could certainly put you out for a certain period of time or worse. If we’re going to shut down, I think shut down until we get it under control, the vaccines are safe to take and it ensures that we aren’t going to be impacted.

I was taken back by the news of Demi Washington, a sophomore guard at Vanderbilt, announcing she was sitting out the remainder of the season after being diagnosed with myocarditis. Every time something comes out like that, we always post it on our staff thread. Obviously we want to just make sure that she’s OK and she’s not further damaging her heart. It’s heavy on my mind.

I constantly talk to our players, and they’re afraid. They want to play, but it’s my job to make decisions that will put them in the best light. As of right now, my training staff, our team doctor, everybody’s saying if we do these things, then you decrease your chances of being shut down because of or being impacted by COVID-19.

I don’t know what’s the right thing to do. If you shut down, you’re going to have some other issues as well, just mentally for our players. When you tell a young person, ‘It’s your health that’s at risk,’ they’re young, they’re invulnerable when it comes to stuff like that. If the season is shut down, we’ll put in resources that will help our players deal with whatever they’re facing.

I’m really good either way. If we shut down, I think I’ll be OK with it. If we continue and nothing impacts us, it hasn’t thus far, I’m good with playing.

How I approach life is you deal with what’s in front of you right now. Right now, we have the season, so we’re going to continue it.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.