COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina coach Dawn Staley always knew her fourth-ranked Gamecocks would compete with the very best teams in the country and the Southeastern Conference — just maybe not this year.
Staley said Wednesday she's surprised at how quickly South Carolina gelled after losing three starters off last year's 25-win squad that reached the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't see us winning 23 of 25 games, that's for sure," Staley said Wednesday. "I did see us being put in a position where we take this program to higher heights."
South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) can take another step toward winning the SEC regular-season crown the Gamecocks travel to No. 15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5) on Thursday night. Defeating the Wildcats would give South Carolina a school-record 24th regular-season win and keep them a game up on Texas A&M in the conference race.
It's been a steady climb since Staley took over the program after the 2007-08 season.
Not one for patient rebuilding, the basketball Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist tried to impose her fast-paced offense and in-your-face defense with players not quite ready for the transition — and that led to several false starts for the Gamecocks rise.
Things began changing two seasons ago as South Carolina reached the NCAA tournament for the first time under Staley in a season that included an end to a 40-game, 32-year losing streak against SEC powerhouse Tennessee.
The Gamecocks built on that success the following year with a second straight trip to the NCAAs, led by seniors Ieasia Walker and Ashley Bruner, and Sancheon White, a trio who started every game of the 2012-13 season.
Without that group, Staley thought it might take a little time before her current players — eight of the 12 are sophomores or freshmen — could matchup in the SEC, particularly on defense.
The Gamecocks were on a different timetable.
South Carolina have attacked opponents on both ends of the court with the 6-foot-4 duo of Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates, and 6-0 Aleighsa Welch. Welch leads the SEC in field goal percentage while Ibiam is the league's top shot-blocker and Coates is third.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Staley's built a program with staying power that won't succumb easily.
"That's what I think Dawn's been about, just a real tough competitor," he said.
The Gamecocks run at the end is not an easy one. After Kentucky, they have home games with Florida and Georgia before finishing the year at No. 10 Tennessee.
With the team at its highest ranking in 32 years, Welch has seen the excitement ramp up around campus with fans and teachers talking No. 1 seeds and national titles.
She said it's too early to pay attention to any of that.
"We really can't afford to get too ahead of ourselves looking at what we can possibly do," Welch said. "We've got a good bit of the season left and the SEC tournament before we start looking at stuff like that."
Staley doesn't do too much to keep her players even-keeled. She said they've won several challenging contests already, including Sunday's 73-57 victory over No. 19 LSU 73-57 — their first win in Baton Rouge since 1994 — and that the players are confident in just about any situation.
No matter how South Carolina finishes, it will take its high NCAA seed on the road because of the governing body's continuing ban on awarding neutral site championships to the Palmetto State because of the Confederate flag ban.
The Gamecocks were seeded fourth last March, but lost a second-round tournament game to Kansas in Boulder, Colo.
Staley said this will be the final season they'll face such measures since the NCAA tournament will allow the top 16 seeds to host first- and second-round games in the 2015 tournament.
The NCAA allows schools in South Carolina to host events earned on performance like FCS playoff games or NCAA baseball regionals.
"If we do our jobs next year and put ourselves in a position to be a top 16 team, we will host," Staley said.
Unitl then, Staley will keep her players focused on what's next.
"It feels good to be in conversations of number one seeds and shows the growth of our program," she said. "I just hope we can continue to have success like we're having."
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.