RON JENKINS / STRINGER / GETTY IMAGES

Barring a major and early upset in the SEC conference tournament, top-ranked South Carolina appears poised to host the Greenville, South Carolina regional, potentially as the highest overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The 2017 national champions have bowed out of March Madness before the Final Four the last two seasons, but are viewed as a near-lock to reach that stage again.

But is South Carolina, with three freshmen starters, really that good? Multiple factors go into answering that question.

 

1. Strength of schedule

Admittedly, the SEC is not at the pinnacle of women’s basketball. The average RPI rating of the 14 teams, including South Carolina’s No. 1 contribution, is 80.

Of course, South Carolina dominated this competition to the tune of a perfect conference record, the first in program history. Their lone loss of the season came against a ranked Indiana team, and South Carolina responded two games later with a commanding win over reigning the national champions, No. 2 Baylor.

For any talk that South Carolina’s schedule has been light, the Gamecocks did beat two of the three other teams in line for a one-seed according to the latest Top 16 Committee ranking (Baylor and Maryland). The Gamecocks also put on a show against UConn, currently slotted as a two-seed by the committee.

The only top four team South Carolina has not seen, Oregon, provides an apt comparison for strength of schedule. Not only did both teams rout UConn, but their respective schedules look nearly identical. South Carolina’s average opponent ranked 87.6 in RPI, Oregon’s 89.7. The strength of schedule metric puts South Carolina at six and Oregon at eight.

South Carolina had to work harder in its non-conference scheduling to make this happen, as the average RPI rating of Oregon’s Pac-12 opponents was 62. The relative parity in the Pac-12 meant that the conference’s lowest ranked team, Cal, could upset one of its top teams, Arizona, on the road. On the other end, in the SEC, Ole Miss went winless in 16 conference games. This would be more of a conversation if South Carolina ever stumbled, but it didn’t. Instead, Dawn Staley’s squad took care of business in its own league while also knocking off some of the best competition in the country.

 

2. The Gamecock’s youth

It’s no secret that South Carolina trends young. After bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class, it shouldn’t be surprising that two of their top three scorers are freshmen. Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, the 3rd and 4th ranked 2019 recruits by ESPN’s HoopGurlz, are 2nd and 3rd on the team with 12.9 and 12.4 points per game, respectively.

Neither, however, are just scorers. Not only does Boston rank seventh in the nation in field goal percentage, she also stands 18th in blocks per game and 57th in rebounds per game. Her 267 rebounds on the season are 97 more than her next closest teammate. Boston isn’t just good for a freshman. She’s good, period. And she’s been widely recognized as such. Her trophy cabinet now includes SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year, and spots on the All-SEC First Team, All-Freshman Team and All-Defensive Team.

Cooke, who joined Boston on the SEC All-Freshman Team, has also impressed. She has led or tied for the team lead in scoring a team-best 11 times, her five 20-point games are a team high, and she is averaging the second most minutes of anyone on the team. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t shown some signs of youth. Her nearly one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t great, especially for a point guard. Nevertheless, Cooke hasn’t let her inexperience affect her confidence — she has taken the most 3-pointers on the team and is connecting on 38% of them.

 

3. Their unsung leaders

While South Carolina’s freshmen have been the story of the season, the reason to believe the Gamecocks have a real chance at winning it all is the strength of their seniors. Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan have been absolute pillars for the team, starting all 29 games alongside Boston, Cooke, and fellow freshman phenom Brea Beal.

Harris was named to the All-SEC First Team for the first time in her career while leading her young running mates to the top spot in the AP poll. Her importance to the team is underscored by her position as the primary playmaker in the most challenging games. On the season, she’s accounted for 30.1% of the team’s offense, but in South Carolina’s 12 games against ranked opposition, that number increased to 34.9%.

Not only is she scoring while dishing out the 17th-most assists per game in the country, but Harris is also taking care of the ball, which is crucial for such a young team. Her 2.78 assist-to-turnover ratio is the nation’s eighth-best. She’s also capitalizing on opponent’s errors, with 46 steals of her own, including this one against UConn, which ended with a coast-to-coast layup.

Herbert Harrigan has also had a standout season while playing her best basketball when it mattered most. Against ranked opponents, her rebounding average is 7.2 per game, 1.5 more than her season average. An All-SEC second-teamer, she’s also scoring a team-high 13.0 points per game as a hyper-efficient 50.5% shooter.

 

In conclusion: yes, South Carolina is really that good

On paper, there’s no question that the Gamecocks are true contenders. They rank first or second in every major statistic in the SEC and have the fourth-best scoring margin in the nation. Their eighth-overall scoring offense and 19th-ranked scoring defense are both elite, further proof that they can get it done on both ends of the court.

South Carolina is primed for success because of, not in spite of, its freshmen contingent. Having seniors who are ready to take over in big games should calm any freshman-syndrome jumpiness as the Gamecocks advance through the tournament. And let’s not forget — Staley knows how to coach. Add it all together, and South Carolina might just be the favorites to cut down the nets in New Orleans.