USC women's basketball Coach Michael Cooper speaks to his players… (Kirby Lee / U.S. Presswire )
In his first season as USC's women's basketball coach, Michael Cooper's team finished, he would argue, a "snub" short of an NCAA tournament bid.
Last season, USC reached a postseason tournament -- but not the one it wanted. The Trojans went to the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 18, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
USC women's basketball: An article previewing the USC women's basketball season in the Nov. 11 Sports section misspelled the last name of guard Ariya Crook as Cook.
This season, which begins Friday at the Galen Center against Fresno State, USC is ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press poll, its first national preseason ranking since 2006.
And that, Cooper said, is an important first step.
"We're among the elite teams now, so we have to understand that the teams we're playing, whether they're elite, ranked or unranked, we're going to get everybody's best shot," he said. "And we've got to be ready for that."
USC should be. The Trojans return four all-conference selections and were picked by Pac-12 Conference coaches to finish second behind Stanford.
"Experience is good, but if you don't play together and you don't get that chemistry together it doesn't do you any good," Cooper said.
Cooper is counting on veteran guards Ashley Corral, Jacki Gemelos and Briana Gilbreath to lead, especially with a couple of impact freshmen on the roster.
USC landed a top-10 recruiting class, and guard Ariya Cook from Long Beach Poly and forward Alexyz Vaioletama from Santa Ana Mater Dei were both McDonald's All-Americans.
"We have to incorporate the young people coming in ... because once we put them in the chemistry drops a little bit," Cooper said.
USC racked up 24 wins last season -- its most since 1993-94 -- and reached the WNIT final despite playing all but one game in that tournament on the road.
"Going through last year with the WNIT will definitely prepare us for the future," said Gilbreath, who averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last season.
USC's schedule includes three teams that played in the 2011 Final Four: Stanford, Notre Dame and NCAA champion Texas A&M.
Fresno State is no pushover, returning two starters from a 25-8 campaign that ended in the NCAA tournament's first round.
But Gilbreath has high expectations, which are:
"Win," she said.