New South Carolina coach Paris taps into Staley’s knowledge
By PETE IACOBELLI
COLUMBIA — First-year coach Lamont Paris didn’t have to go far to find a welcome and willing resource on how to build a championship program in South Carolina: Gamecocks women’s coach Dawn Staley.
Paris, who has spent the past five seasons coaching Chattanooga, has had several talks with Staley since taking over the men’s basketball job last March, shortly before Staley and his team won the national title. .
Paris wanted to know Staley’s process for moving the women’s team from “penthouse addiction” after arriving ahead of the 2008-09 season. Staley’s early teams struggled to make a dent in the Southeastern Conference. She didn’t play in an NCAA tournament until her fourth season, the first of 10 straight trips, including winning it all in 2017 and last season.
Paris said he asked “how important the community is to support it and even get local players.”
Staley is a great example there too. South Carolina has led women’s basketball home attendance for the past seven seasons, including 12,431 fans per game in 2021-22. She’s signed hometown stars like WNBA champion A’ja Wilson, who has a statue outside the Gamecocks arena, and has another in Columbia’s five-star rookie Ashlyn Watkins.
Paris tried to follow Staley’s lead. He recruited highly rated freshman forward GG Jackson II from Columbia, who was ranked the sixth-best college prospect in the nation by ESPN.com.
Jackson is expected to draw plenty of area fans to Colonial Life Arena, where the men have often been considered an afterthought in an 18,000-seat arena where their crowds often don’t come close to what the women draw.
Paris knows he has a pretty tough job merging a roster where eight players, including four starters, left after Frank Martin was fired.
Paris has attracted five transfers, including Meechie Johnson from Ohio State and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk from Illinois this season. The Big Ten newcomers come as no surprise since Paris was a longtime assistant at Wisconsin under Bo Ryan before moving to Chattanooga.
Jackson said the team comes together in practices and is confident they will be competitive this season.
Anyone who watched practice, Jackson said, would think, “‘Oh, yeah, this team (has) something good.'”
GG Jackson, considered by some recruiting services to be the No. 1 prospect for the 2023 cycle, was leaning towards South Carolina when Martin was coaching. After the stint at Lamont Paris, Jackson committed to North Carolina. But he and his family met and loved Paris so much that 17-year-old Jackson upgraded and signed up to play this winter.
“I’m still trying to adjust to college life a bit, but it’s not something I can’t handle,” Jackson said.
REASON FOR CHANGE
South Carolina rebounded from a 6-15 season in 2020-21 to go 18-13 last year. But the school and some fans had grown unhappy that Martin’s teams, aside from a remarkable Final Four run in 2017, missed the NCAAs in nine of his 10 seasons. Paris took over after five seasons with Chattanooga, where he led the Mocs to the NCAA Tournament last March.
There are only six comebacks from last season and only Jacobi Wright and Chico Carter Jr. have started. In all, eight players who made 143 starts last season had exhausted their eligibility or failed to return. Paris will rely a lot on its transfers. Hayden Brown averaged 18.8 points per game for The Citadel a year ago and will be wanted to add some punch this season.
South Carolina takes on state rival Clemson on Nov. 11 and then takes part in the Charleston Classic, an eight-team in-state tournament that also includes ACC tournament champion Virginia Tech and Penn State of the Big Ten. SEC play begins at Vanderbilt on Jan. 3.