Who starts and who sits for South Carolina WBB? Early projections for 2023 season

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Raven Johnson has started three games for South Carolina.

The Gamecocks’ other 10 players have combined to start zero.

That’s one of many ways to quantify just how much production the USC women’s basketball team is losing from 2022-23 — and how much opportunity awaits the roster in 2023-24.

Guard Talaysia Cooper’s transfer out of the program last week brought South Carolina, ESPN’s preseason way-too-early No. 8 team, down to a nearly even split in terms of returning players and newcomers on the roster.

USC will return six players from last year’s team — which went 36-1, swept the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles and reached the Final Four before losing to Iowa —and bring in five new high school/transfer recruits for a total of 11 scholarship players.

It’s a daunting but expected transition for coach Dawn Staley and company after the formative 2019 recruiting class that led South Carolina to three Final Fours and a national championship — Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere — left for the WNBA.

Victaria Saxton was also drafted while Kierra Fletcher exhausted her eligibility, Olivia Thompson declined to use her “COVID year” and Cooper entered the transfer portal, taking USC to eight departures from last season’s 14-player roster.

With a ton of familiar faces gone, what will the Gamecocks’ rotation look like this season? Here is The State’s summer stab at a starting lineup projection.

Point guard

Starter: Raven Johnson, 5-8 G, redshirt sophomore.

Backup: MiLaysia Fulwiley, 5-6 G, freshman.

Breakdown: Johnson, the No. 2 overall recruit in her class, hung tough after ceding her starting position to Fletcher early last season and wound up earning SEC All-Freshman honors while emerging as a top rotational piece in the postseason — especially late in the NCAA Tournament.

Fully healed from an ACL tear that cost her all but two games of her freshman season, Johnson flashed her speed and scoring chops and led USC in assist/turnover ratio. She also ranked No. 17 nationally in that metric. With more minutes, her stats should only improve.

Fulwiley, South Carolina’s top-ranked incoming signee, is a walking highlight reel (and, at 5-6, a dunker). But she’s also a true freshman. She’ll benefit from a reserve role that affords her the opportunity to learn and grow and make mistakes at a crucial position in Staley’s offense.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) plays UCLA in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Saturday, March 25, 2023.
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) plays UCLA in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Saturday, March 25, 2023.

Shooting guard

Starter: Te-Hina Paopao, 5-9 G, senior.

Backup: Tessa Johnson, 5-10 G, freshman.

Breakdown: Shooting was a season-long weakness that came back to bite South Carolina at the worst time last season. Adding Paopao, a career 38.0% 3-point shooter who joined the Gamecocks after three seasons at Oregon, offers an immediate solution.

Paopao shot a career-high 42.4% on 3-pointers as a junior, which ranked No. 14 nationally, and also set career highs in 3-pointers made and total assists for the Ducks in 2022-23.

This may not be the purest positional fit. But on this roster at this moment, Paopao’s too talented and too experienced to sit. She’s also indicated a willingness to play alongside Johnson as needed. Behind her, McDonald’s All-American Tessa Johnson can provide depth and shooting.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bree Hall (23) plays Maryland at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Monday, March 27, 2023.
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bree Hall (23) plays Maryland at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Monday, March 27, 2023.

Small forward

Starter: Bree Hall, 6-0 F, junior.

Backups: Chloe Kitts, 6-2 F, sophomore; Sahnya Jah, 6-1 F, freshman.

Breakdown: Hall took a significant step forward in Year 2 and, like Johnson, played some of her best ball late in the season. She shot 35.9% on 3-pointers — the best among returning Gamecocks — and developed a reputation for making big shots for USC off the bench.

Outside of shooting, her top trait, Hall’s got some room to grow. She averaged just 1.9 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game off the bench. But those are numbers that can and should jump with more minutes. At 6-0, Hall’s also got good size to complement USC’s shorter backcourt.

Kitts, a former five-star recruit, is worth keeping an eye on after a full year in South Carolina’s strength and conditioning program, which was one of the top reasons she enrolled early with the Gamecocks last year. Jah was the No. 40 recruit in espnW’s final rankings for the 2023 class.

Power forward

Starter: Sania Feagin, 6-3 F, junior.

Backup: Ashlyn Watkins, 6-3 F, sophomore.

Breakdown: Feagin played more minutes and took more shots as a sophomore and actually led the team in points per 40 minutes, a clear indicator that she was making the most of her playing time offensively. But she’s still seeking a full-on breakout.

Staley has challenged Feagin to improve her defense — that could be the key to more consistent minutes for the former No. 4 overall recruit. The fact Feagin has stayed patient and stuck to the plan at USC, as opposed to transferring, indicates she could be in for a big third season.

But this is probably the biggest toss-up among starters due to the presence of Watkins, who drew rave reviews for her strength, power and improved communication as a freshman and might have the most defensive potential of anyone on the roster.

South Carolina Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso (10) plays Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airlines Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.
South Carolina Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso (10) plays Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airlines Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Center

Starter: Kamilla Cardoso, 6-7 C, senior.

Backup: Sakima Walker, 6-5 F, junior.

Breakdown: Cardoso thrived in a reserve role at South Carolina the past two seasons, spelling Boston off the bench and playing alongside her to excellent results. Now the reigning SEC Sixth Woman of the Year gets a well-deserved elevation to full-time USC center.

The Syracuse transfer averaged 9.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in 2022-23, making her South Carolina’s returning leader in both categories, and she continues to display excellent instincts as a shot blocker and offensive rebounder.

You couldn’t go wrong with a Cardoso-Walker frontcourt. But South Carolina rotated centers effectively last season, and coming off the bench — at least initially — could help Walker, a JUCO transfer, fully showcase her proven offensive talents while adjusting to SEC basketball.