The Syracuse Orange women's basketball team starts its 2014-15 season on Sunday. The Orange host the Fordham Rams at noon in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse went 23-10 last year, won its first NCAA Tournament game in team history and just missed out on a Sweet Sixteen bid with a 64-59 loss to Kentucky.
The Orange returns most of its core, but there are still a few questions heading into the regular season. Here's five of them:
The biggest question mark heading into non-conference play is Brittney Sykes' health. Sykes was Syracuse's leading scorer last year, but tore her ACL on March 22 against Chattanooga. She wore a large brace on her right knee after having successful surgery. The brace is now off and she's rehabbing well, but when exactly she'll be back on the court is still unclear. At Syracuse Media Day, Sykes didn't specify when she'd be ready to return or give any target date.
"Honestly, I just go every day into rehab just knowing that it's one day closer to being cleared," Sykes said. "Whatever day that may be - it may be soon, it may be later. I just know the most important thing to me and to this team is making sure that I'm 100 percent."
The junior guard led Syracuse last season with 16.6 points per game and was third on the team in both rebounds (5.1) and assists (1.8). She led the Orange transition offense and was one of the few players who could get easy baskets.
Coach Quentin Hillsman expects Sykes back at full strength "at some point this season". But he said her health is too important to rush her back.
"When she's 100 percent, we're going to play her," Hillsman said. "We're not going to play her when she's 80 percent. We're not going to play her at 75 percent."
It won't be any easy task finding a mix of players to step in for Sykes, if she's not able to play for an extended period. She was not only Syracuse's highest volume shooter, but the most efficient one. At 50.5 percent shooting, Sykes led the Orange, which otherwise struggled in that department. Syracuse shot 39.4 percent as a team - second to last in the ACC and 217th in the NCAA.
Hillsman said that he doesn't expect one player to replace Sykes' productivity. He plans to use a seven-player starting lineup and, possibly an 11 or 12 man rotation, to accommodate Syracuse's up-tempo play.
"Everyone on this team is able to step up," Brianna Butler said. "As Coach said, we have seven starters and can go even deeper in our bench this year. I think we are definitely improving as a team and there's more that we can do."
Butler is one of three healthy returning starters, including Cornelia Fondren and Isabella Sim. Forward Taylor Forward came off the bench played about starters' minutes (about 18 per game) last year. And Briana Day takes over at center, after averaging six points and six rebounds as a freshman.
"I feel sorry for other teams," Sykes said. "Because once somebody subs out, you just have somebody else come in and give you more havoc."
Brianna Butler will shoulder the biggest burden of leading the offense without Sykes. She was second on the team in scoring (14.5) and almost single-handedly led Syracuse to its road upset against then No. 6 North Carolina. Without Sykes, Butler will have the "green light" to shoot that Hillsman so often talks about.
"Brianna Butler is tremendous," Hillsman said. "She made a hundred 3s last year and she can really shoot the ball. And she's going to have to shoot the ball for us. Last year, she took about 320 threes. This year, we're going to need her to take about 380 of them."
Sykes and Butler made up about 42 percent of Syracuse's scoring last season. Now, Butler becomes the spotlight for opposing defenses and takes over as the de-facto team captain. Teammates say that Butler - a quiet, modest player - is ready for that role.
"I feel like Bri was always a leader, even with Brittney," Briana Day said. "Scoring wise, she's always been able to do that. That's just what she does. She's a scorer and I feel like it's no pressure for her."
Ah yes - the bane of the 2-3 zone. The Orange was actually second best in the ACC in offensive rebounds per game, but struggled at times in its own end. Syracuse's rebounding margin (+2.0) was good for just 117th in the nation. And it could get even worse this season, especially if Sykes misses a significant period of time.
Shakeya Leary, the team's rebounding leader, graduated this spring. That leaves sophomore Briana Day with a bulk of the responsibility.
"I think that a year has done her a world of good," Hillsman said. "She's maturing as a player. She's stronger and faster and I'm really excited for her success this year."
Still, Hillsman hinted that he could use bigger lineups with three players who are 6-foot-4 or taller on the court at the same time. That would be a major change from his guard-heavy rotations that sometimes only include one forward.
And the million dollar question: how far can Syracuse make it this season? In 2013, the team returned to the NCAA Tournament after a five year hiatus. The Orange then upped the ante this spring by advancing to the second round. It was just a five-point loss without Sykes that separated the Orange from its first Sweet Sixteen birth in team history.
And this season, the Orange coaches and players have mentioned a Sweet Sixteen appearance as the goal.
"Three possessions," Hillsman said. "That's it. Because three possession and we're in the Sweet Sixteen. And that's the difference in the game. When you're in a tournament game and you lose the game by single digits, you go back and look at it. If we could make three more shots or three more stops, we make the Sweet Sixteen."
His star player - meanwhile - didn't mince any words.
Said Sykes, "We should be nowhere less than the Sweet Sixteen."