Last year's South Carolina basketball team was one of the best teams ever not to win a national championship. Dawn Staley's team took an undefeated record into the NCAA Tournament after beating their opponents by 30 points per game (and only have 4 games with a single-digit point margin).
However, they also had a massive weakness that proved to be their undoing in the Final Four.
The Gamecocks really struggled to make outside shots with much consistency as only one player (guard Zia Cooke) averaged more than 1 make from the perimeter per game (Cooke made 1.7 3-pointers per game). The team made just 31% of their 3-point jumpers on 14 tries per game, good for just 4.4 makes each contest.
Against a good Iowa team powered by an elite shooter in Caitlin Clark, the Gamecocks made just 5 of their 20 3s despite everyone other than Cook being dared to shoot. Famously, two of the Gamecocks top-3 guards Kierra Fletcher and Raven Johnson were waved off by Clark, something that Johnson took personally this offseason.
Her head coach took it personally, too.
Dawn Staley has recalibrated her offensive philosophy since last April, and the results have followed as the Gamecocks have focused on outside shooting more than they ever have during the Staley era in Columbia.
The Gamecocks' first transfer portal addition during the offseason came from the best shooter available in the portal. Te-Hina Paopao was an All-Pac 12 performer at Oregon who was known for playing smart as a guard and for being a deadly marksman from 3-point land. That has translated to the South Carolina basketball program as she has made multiple 3-pointers in every game this season and is averaging under 2 turnovers per game despite her high usage.
Paopao is the SEC's leading 3-point threat (55.2%), and she is one of just a small handful of players in the country who is ranked in the top-50 in 3-point percentage (2nd) and 3-point makes (49th). Paopao has also been even better against good competition, making almost 57% of her deep balls against teams from Power-6 conferences.
But Paopao wasn't Coach Staley's only move in turning her team into one of the country's best from outside. She also addressed the issue internally.
Two major rotation players were expected to be starters in 2023-2024, but their shooting deficiencies made that thought a bit scary. But Staley knew that ability was not the issue. Confidence (or the lack thereof) held back Raven Johnson and Bree Hall as shooters. So, this offseason, Staley didn't give up on her players; instead, she worked with them and encouraged them to be comfortable.
Even Bree Hall's mother knows how much Dawn Staley's intentionality and belief in her guards changed things this offseason.
Bree Hall and Raven Johnson now rank 2nd and 7th, respectively, in the SEC in 3-point shooting. Hall trails only Paopao in shooting, making 46.4% of her outside shots. Johnson has gone from a 24% shooter to a 41.4% threat this season. This is a marked improvement from last season when the two players combined to make just 1 3-pointer per game at a 30% rate. The two Gamecock starters make almost three times as many 3-pointers per game than they combined to make last season, and they do so with elite efficiency.
For Johnson and Hall, their newfound confidence is key. Not much changed about either player's form from last year to this year (Johnson has a bit of a higher release this season and a new pre-shot load; Hall has a more consistent base as she used to bring her feet close together sometimes), but they both take shots with much more confidence this year.
Look at how smoothly and comfortably Raven Johnson took shots even in the season opener this year.
Last season, Johnson hesitated before almost every jumper she took.
Confidence has also been a factor for Hall, but it is a little harder to see on film.
This year, she has a more repeatable and solid base, but she also can be seen calling for the ball more often this year than in years past, indicating she is playing freer and with more confidence.
Adding Te-Hina Paopao and working with Raven Johnson and Bree Hall were some of Coach Staley's best coaching moves of this offseason and are a big reason why the Gamecocks are #1 in the rankings where they belong.