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South Carolina was the team to beat the last two seasons, but the hype has dissipated entering 2023-24 as the Gamecocks failed to defend their national title and lost multiple key players. Dawn Staley, however, doesn't care about hype.

"I don't care about other people's expectations of our team," said Staley, who's beginning her 16th season as the Gamecocks' coach. "I don't care about other people's views of our team. We had the best team in the nation last year, so yeah, they had to talk about us. Now they don't deem us as the top team in the country. They probably don't have to talk about us so it really doesn't matter to me. I couldn't care less about it."

Although the Gamecocks didn't win a second consecutive national title last season, they still made it to the Final Four and put up a valiant effort against Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes. However, South Carolina's chances at making that deep of a run again don't look as promising, at least on paper. 

South Carolina lost what Staley described as "one of the most historic classes in the history of the program" to the WNBA. That group included Laeticia Amihere, Zia Cooke, Victaria Saxton and two-time Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The team is much more inexperienced now at basically every position, but Staley still expects them to win. For Staley's expectations to become reality, a new leader has to emerge -- and that role belongs to Kamilla Cardoso.

"I think sometimes when a big piece of your program has moved on to the WNBA, it leaves a huge gap to fill. Kamilla is filling it nicely," Staley said of the 6-foot-7 center. "She is communicative, she's energized. She is dominant in the paint. She is taking her mid-range shots. She's doing everything that a senior is supposed to do when you don't have the same as we had last year."

Last season, Cardoso ranked 21st in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (3.72) and 28th in blocks (1.94), adding 9.8 points per contest. She is now entering her senior season as a 2023 All-America honorable mention.

"There is nothing like her in the collegiate game," Staley said. "[Cardoso] is 6-foot-7, agile, runs the floor well and has a high percentage in the paint. I'm hopping she shoots that mid-range, she's respectable there. You'll see that she'll be one that deserves to be talked about."

Another player who is taking her game to another level is Raven Johnson, a 5-foot-9 point guard entering her sophomore season. Last year she appeared in 36 games, three as a starter, and averaged 4.2 points and 2.6 boards per contest.

"She pushes tempos, she makes us pretty darn good in transition," Staley said. "She has a really strong connection with Kamilla Cardoso. I think she her shot is much improved. She's got great mid-range. Her 3-point shooting has been consistent in practice, so hopefully when the game starts, the heavy minutes she'll have to play for us will allow her to be consistent from the outside."

Staley said junior guard Bree Hall has also improved significantly and described sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins as a "young and up-and-coming" player. The addition of senior Te-Hina Paopao, a transfer from Oregon, adds some extra power to the roster. Paopao made 81 3-pointers last year at a 42% clip while averaging 13.1 points per game.

The Gamecocks also have a lot of young talent coming in. South Carolina has four freshmen ranked in the top 50 of the 2023 HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings, the most of any team, and that group consists of Milaysia Fulwiley, Chloe Kitts, Tessa Johnson and Sahnya Jah

Fulwiley, ranked No. 13 in the class of 2023, averaged 25.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 5.7 steals as a high school senior.

"Milaysia is a generational talent and doing things I haven't seen a female do," Staley said.

South Carolina picks a theme every season, and this year it's "love." Staley said it was important for her team to remember their love for the game in a season in which so many things are changing, especially when the outside noise is not always encouraging. 

Staley has won the Naismith Women's Coach of the Year honor three of the last four years, and her recipe to success is a simple one. She said her biggest focus each season, regardless of who's on the roster, is to make sure she prepares her players to be the best versions of themselves as people, not just athletes.

"I just want to pour love into our team," Staley said. "How to play, how to conduct themselves, how to prepare for the next level. How to become productive young ladies to our society, our city, our state. That's what it's always been about.

"That's all that matters. I'm going to love them whether they win a national championship or not."

The Gamecocks will tip off their 2023-24 season on Nov. 6 against Notre Dame in Paris. It's a historic occasion as it will be the first college basketball game ever played on French soil.