South Carolina basketball coach Dawn Staley has the best team in college basketball once again, and the Gamecocks are the unanimous #1 team in the land as the only remaining undefeated team across the sport. The loss in last year's Final Four seems to have propelled the new-look 2023-2024 squad to (arguably) their most complete 21-game regular season showing in program history.
After Sunday's blowout win over Ole Miss, the Gamecocks are winning their SEC contests by a scoring margin of over 26 points per game, and they lead the conference in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounding, assists, fewest turnovers, scoring efficiency, scoring defense, blocked shots, and fewest fouls.
But as they continue their revenge tour, Coach Staley's team will face a unique test this week.
With two home games against Missouri and 11th-ranked UConn looming over the next six days, South Carolina basketball will be without their leading scorer. Kamilla Cardoso will be playing with the Brazilian national team during Olympic qualifiers.
Playing for one's country is a tremendous honor, and Cardoso always has relished her opportunities to do so. Her absence this week does not come as a surprise, but it is one that the Gamecocks will have to work around in order to keep up their high level of play.
How can they adjust without their All-SEC post player?
Ashlyn Watkins has started the last two games at power forward as Chloe Kitts battled an illness, and based on her usage as the team's backup 5 most of this season, it feels as if "Miss Swatkins" will slide over to the center spot in place of Cardoso. If Kitts is ready to go after her illness, she likely will slot back into her power forward position, but if she is limited like she was on Sunday against Ole Miss, Sania Feagin could draw the start. Another potential option could be Sakima Walker at the pivot spot, but she has been further down the rotation than Watkins, Kitts, and Feagin.
What the Gamecocks must do in Cardoso's absence is continue to own the paint. It's what they do (and have done for years).
When Carolina is dominating down low on offense, not only are they punishing teams on the glass and with paint points, but they also open up shooting opportunities for 3-point threats like Te-Hina Paopao, Bree Hall, Raven Johnson, MiLaysia Fulwiley, and Tessa Johnson.
The Gamecocks are also one of the country's top teams in blocked shots, and Cardoso leads the team. However, even without the Brazilian post, the blocked shot numbers might not fall off. Ashlyn Watkins blocks a higher percentage of shots than Cardoso does (just in fewer minutes), so if she can stay on the court and out of foul trouble, the defense might not drop off this week.
Depth could be an issue as Carolina already plays with just 11 scholarship players on the roster. Only 9 are typically in the rotation. With just 10 available, will Sakima Walker and/or Sahnya Jah get more playing time, will Coach Staley play small some, or will the Gamecocks rely on their forwards to play more minutes than normal? Fans should expect Staley to experiment a bit against an overmatched Missouri team on Thursday as she figures out her final game plan for Sunday's UConn game.
Being without Kamilla Cardoso will be a difficult challenge for South Carolina basketball. However, this team has enough big-time talent to withstand the best shots from Mizzou and UConn even without her. Watkins, Kitts, and Feagin were 5-star players coming out of high school for a reason, and all three have shown the ability to be major contributors for Dawn Staley's squad.
Watkins has two double-doubles and 6 blocks in her two starts over the past week, and Kitts has been one of three players to average at least 6 rebounds for the Gamecocks and one of six to score at least 9 points per game. Feagin usually plays fewer minutes than Watkins and Kitts, but she still has scored in double-figures six times this season and is averaging 11 points (on 60% shooting), 5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in her three games with at least 20 minutes played this year.
If the Gamecocks can avoid foul trouble (especially from Watkins), then South Carolina basketball fans can expect them to come out of the Cardoso-less week undefeated, even with the big test from UConn coming on Sunday. A sellout crowd against the Huskies will help the cause, as well.
Carolina will face Missouri at 7:00 on the SECNetwork on Thursday, and the annual UConn rivalry game will be played at 2:00 on Sunday on ESPN.