"We have to win;" Chloe Kitts believes this year's NCAA Tournament will be different for South Carolina basketball

South Carolina basketball forward Chloe Kitts says that she is "focused on March" as the Gamecocks get ready for another Final Four run.

South Carolina basketball forward Chloe Kitts
South Carolina basketball forward Chloe Kitts / Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, Garnet and Cocky's Kevin Miller had the chance to catch up with South Carolina basketball star Chloe Kitts to talk about her breakout sophomore campaign, the differences between her freshman year and sophomore year, and why this year's NCAA Tournament will turn out differently for the Gamecocks.

What a difference a year can make. The 2022-2023 version of the South Carolina basketball team was viewed as the favorite to win the national title, and they dominated their way through the schedule until suffering their first loss at the worst time, in the Final Four against Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

The 2023-2024 team is much different than last year's team from a personnel standpoint (the Gamecocks lost 8 of their top 12 players from last year's team to the WNBA Draft, graduation, or transfer) and style (this year's team plays at a more up-tempo pace and shoots the basketball from outside much better than last year). They were expected by many to be in a "rebuilding year" and be good but not great.

Dawn Staley's team has proved the doubters wrong with their 25-0 start, but anyone who has watched the Gamecocks play this year knows that this year's on-court excellence is a different type of dominance than the product put on the court by last year's team.

For one Gamecock in particular, the two seasons couldn't be much more different.

Forward Chloe Kitts joined the South Carolina basketball program near the mid-point of last season as an early enrollee, and she was too talented to sit on the bench as a redshirt. However, Kitts was behind a slew of players who had spent years on the team, and her late addition to the group saw her only play 7 minutes per game.

It was a tough transition, but Kitts says that a couple of seniors, Olivia Thompson and Aliyah Boston, specifically, helped her make it through last season. "Olivia Thompson...she was a big outlet I went to, especially because she's older and she knows what it's like...and, also, Aliyah [Boston]...she's just one of the best leaders I've ever met."

After getting her feet wet as a freshman and then "staying in the gym" all summer, Kitts says she is in a completely different place.

The numbers back that up. Not only is Chloe Kitts a starter on the country's best team, but she has improved every number possible in her personal stat book. Her points per game have gone up from 1.6 to 9.7. She's upped her rebounding from 1.6 to 6.0, and she is shooting significantly better from the field (37.5% last year, compared to 53.7% this year).

Kitts credits experience and her focus on the mental side of her game as major reasons for her improvement and why she is comfortable on the court this season.

"You know, mentally, that's a big part for me. Once you're mentally strong, everything else comes out more slowly. [The college game] is definitely different from high school. People want to tell you it's easy, but it's not easy. Last year was different."

But just because this year is different from last year doesn't mean that the returners on this year's team have forgotten what happened at the beginning of April 2023. When asked about whether or not the Final Four loss to Iowa has affected this year's team, the talented forward quickly had an answer.

"I think it has. I think it has also put a chip on our shoulders...it was heartbreak when we lost last year...[now], we have to win. We have to."

The Gamecocks are uniquely built to play with depth and with positional versatility, meaning that even if one player has a tough game or gets into foul trouble (or is in Brazil for Olympic qualifying like Kamilla Cardoso was two weeks ago), there is always another player ready to step up and fill the gap. This seems especially true in the post where Kitts, Cardoso, Ashlyn Watkins, Sania Feagin, and Sakima Walker all are starter-caliber players on most teams.

Where last year's team was so reliant on the top-8 players on the roster (the 8-player rotation played virtually every non-garbage time minute), this year's group can play 10-deep or 11-deep in some situations.

"We're all good," says Kitts. "It's competition every day, just being around great players and just being able to play with them, it helps all of us...we push each other. We want to see each other succeed...It's so much fun to see that when we sub people in, we get the same production."

As Kitts said repeatedly, this team "is focused on March," but they know not to look too far ahead. "We've gotta take it one game at a time because that's how you get there."

Kitts and the rest of her South Carolina basketball teammates will hit the court on Thursday for a home game against Alabama. The game will tip off at 7:00 and will be broadcast on the SEC Network. Coach Dawn Staley will be going for her 600th career win, and her team will clinch their 8th SEC title in 11 seasons with another victory.

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