When Dawn Staley recruits players, she’s not looking at how well a prospect can play defense. Instead, she measures two characteristics: competitive fire and coachability.
If those two qualities coalesce, she has all she needs to mold a defensive team. After all, according to Staley, defense is a decision. And this season's squad is all in.
“They don't want to lose,” the three-time national coach of the year said. “They really don't like the feeling of losing, so they will do anything to prevent that from happening.”
That prevention includes holding opponents to 51.1 points and 31.7 percent shooting from the field. It includes leading the nation in blocks (8.9) and rebounding margin (20.3). It includes decimating teams by an average of 29.5 points per game, more than any other Division I team.
Only three teams — Stanford (71 points), UConn (77) and Maryland (75) — have scored more than 70 points against South Carolina this season. Before the Terps put up the second-largest point total against the Gamecocks in the Elite Eight, South Carolina was on pace to reach historic heights defensively.
Through the first three games of the tournament, the Gamecocks allowed 42.6 points per game, to best last year’s mark of 45.5. That was the second-lowest by a men’s or women’s champion over the last 75 years.
Still, South Carolina tops nearly every defensive statistic amongst Power Five teams and leads the nation in multiple categories. With 321 blocks on the season, they’re just four away from setting a new NCAA season record, and the 8.9 average is on pace to beat the record (8.6) set in 2020, by none other than, South Carolina.
The personnel helps. From top to bottom, the roster doesn’t have a defensive weak link. The team’s average height of 72.9 inches is the second tallest in the country. Aliyah Boston and Brea Beal both placed as finalists for defensive player of the year, ultimately Boston won the award for the second straight season.
On top of dominating teams on the glass and heavily contesting shots, Staley has worked in defensive strategies she picked up while coaching Team USA to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.
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A three-player switch, and at times, a four-player switch defense never allows opponents to take advantage of a mismatch.
“If a college team is able to execute it, you could have one of the best defenses in college basketball,” Staley said. “It's pretty neat for us to be able to seamlessly defend that way.”
It involves three steps:
- When a big switches onto a smaller player after a screen, they’re trained to stay in front of the guard
- Next, South Carolina’s mismatched guard rolls to switch with its other post player
- If it’s a four-player rotation the point guard will rotate with the taller guard who switches with a forward
It’s even more disruptive than it is complex. Take it from Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors after a humbling 92-46 loss to South Carolina in January.
“They can switch and still keep you in front and contest. I mean all those kids can contest you,” Neighbors said. “We made a few early that kept us in it early, but then you miss a few and then it gets compounded and snowballs but that's what they do to you.”
That’s exactly what the Gamecocks do. They don’t steal possessions by forcing turnovers, they keep teams in front of them and force them to take bad shots and then seal up that rebound.
It happened against South Florida in the second round, and it happened to Maryland in the regional finals. Both teams took leads in the first half, but South Carolina’s defense didn’t relent for 40 minutes. Both final scores ended with double-digit losses.
The snowballing effect happens in the second and third quarters. The Gamecocks outscore opponents by 8 and 8.3 points in the respective periods. Oftentimes it’s more than that as they’ve outdone opponents by 15 or more points in a quarter 23 times this season.
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To play striking defense at that level takes commitment and chemistry.
The schemes pulled from Staley’s time at the professional level happen in a matter of seconds and relies on all five players remaining on the same page to work as one.
They trust each other, Staley said. Even more so than last year’s championship team which tells her a lot.
“We’re linked at the heart,” she said. “They really respect and love and, generally, want the best for each individual on our team and they show it in their play.”
A team of the ultimate competitors that are linked together on and off the court — all the makings for a dominant defense.