USC WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

LAST SEASON: 25-8, 11-5 (4th)

COACH: Dawn Staley, 92-66 in five seasons; 264-144 in 13 overall

PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Aleighsa Welch, 6-0, jr. (12 ppg, 7.7 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell, 5-9, so. (9.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); C Alaina Coates, 6-4, fr. (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)

NOTABLE: South Carolina hopes to take the next step toward becoming an elite program after reaching 25 wins and the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. To do that, the Gamecocks will have to navigate a loaded SEC. USC lost key contributors Ashley Bruner and Iesia Walker from last season’s team. Aleighsa Welch will lead the way as a junior, while sophomore Tiffany Mitchell’s improvement and freshman Alaina Coates’ presence should help make up for the lost production.

USC WOMEN’S SCHEDULE

Nov. 8 CSU 7 p.m.

Nov. 10 LA Tech 2 p.m.

Nov. 14 Charleston 8 p.m.

Nov. 17 Seton Hall 3 p.m.

Nov. 20 at Clemson 7 p.m.

Nov. 23 at SD State 4 p.m.

Nov. 25 at Southern Cal 8 p.m.

Dec. 2 NC Central 7 p.m.

Dec. 8 at Charlotte 2 p.m.

Dec. 18 UNC 7 p.m.

Dec. 20 Winthrop 7 p.m.

Dec. 22 SC State 1 p.m.

Dec. 28 Savannah St. noon

Jan. 2 at Arkansas 8 p.m.

Jan. 5 Vanderbilt 1 p.m.

Jan. 9 Kentucky 7 p.m.

Jan. 12 at Auburn 2:30 p.m.

Jan. 16 at Texas A&M 8 p.m.

Jan. 19 Alabama 3 p.m.

Jan. 26 at Vanderbilt 2 p.m.

Jan. 30 Ole Miss 7 p.m.

Feb. 2 Missouri 3 p.m.

Feb. 6 at Miss. State 8 p.m.

Feb. 9 Arkansas 2 p.m.

Feb. 16 at LSU 3:30 p.m.

Feb. 20 at Kentucky 7 p.m.

Feb. 23 Florida 1 p.m.

Feb. 27 Georgia 7 p.m.

Mar. 2 at Tennessee 2:30 p.m.

COLUMBIA — Dawn Staley knew her program had turned a corner when she saw her players get upset.

The South Carolina women’s basketball coach would schedule an off day during the offseason, a break from summer workouts. In years past, that would be the end of it. Players would take their day with a smile.

These players complained.

To the Gamecocks’ sixth-year coach, the message was clear. No longer was it acceptable to take days off. They wanted to be in the gym, getting up shots, working on defensive fundamentals.

“That’s a good mark, and different than the players that we’ve had in the past,” Staley said at SEC Media Days last month. “They want to practice, they want to get better. And what better (thing) to hear? That’s kind of a coach’s dream to hear their players say they don’t want to take a day off.”

When No. 22 South Carolina begins its season with a 7 p.m. tipoff Friday against Charleston Southern, the program will carry that urgency with it. Staley has begun to build something here, with the Gamecocks reaching 25 wins and the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. They’re getting national attention now, showing up in the preseason polls.

This winter, USC hopes to take another step toward the elite.

It starts with moving up the pecking order in a loaded SEC. The Gamecocks were picked by the league’s coaches to finish fifth in the conference. They have their sights on the four teams ahead of them – Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU and Vanderbilt.

Staley knows the journey won’t be easy.

“Honestly, I do think the league is better,” Staley said. “I know (the SEC) has lost some key players at a lot of different programs, but I think we’ve reloaded in the talent, and we’ve reloaded in bringing in some different coaches that will add to the SEC being the best conference in the country. So I don’t expect anything different. I kind of expect more from top to bottom, that our league gets more competitive.”