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The Tournament Time Sparknotes Edition to Syracuse Women's Basketball

If you're just hopping on the bandwagon for Syracuse's women's basketball, here's what you need to know.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

So you want to become a Syracuse Orange women's basketball fan now, huh?

As John Cassillo brought up, the men's self imposed ban leaves a pretty big hole to fill and yet lacrosse season is just getting started and baseball season hasn't even gotten that far yet.

Well, voila!

The Syracuse women begins ACC Tournament play on Thursday morning against Wake Forest and projects to be somewhere between a five and seven seed in the NCAA Tournament.  The Orange will be making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and haven't been banned from postseason play in their 44 seasons in existence.

Before Quentin Hillsman took over, it was Syracuse's play that kept them out of the tournament.

The Orange was perennially one of the worst teams in the Big East and had never won an NCAA Tournament game before last season.

The coach that Hillsman replaced (we'll call him the GERG of women's basketball) went 9-39 in the Big East over three seasons. That's two fewer conference wins than the Orange got in this season alone when Syracuse went 21-8 for the second straight regular season, earning a position in the AP Poll every week of the year.

So what else is there to know about the current group of Orange and how they got here?

1. Sophomore Studs

Syracuse's offensive success runs through a pair of sophomores, who have made big strides from freshman year.  Alexis Peterson and Briana Day, two bench players from last year's squad, have thrived in starting roles this season. Peterson, a 5-foot-6 point guard, leads the Orange in scoring (15.1 points per game), assists and steals.  She's very different from the recent prototype of a Syracuse point guard, a conservative ball handler who facilitates rather than drives the attack.

Syracuse has become Center U. during Hillsman's tenure, a trend that has continued with Briana Day.  She's already broken the team record for most rebounds in a single season, even before competing in the ACC and NCAA Tournament.  She's on pace to become the second Syracuse player in 25 years to average a double-double for the season.

"It's just her work ethic," Hillsman said.  "She stayed after it. I think she's really been making a conscious effort to get in better shape.  She's made a conscious effort to get every possession."

2. No Brittney Sykes

The biggest question coming into the season: how far can Syracuse go without Brittney Sykes?

Syracuse's leading scorer from a year ago missed the first 11 games of the season, recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus.  Sykes came back on Dec. 28 to a team that managed to score well and win even without her.

But Sykes re-tore that ACL a few games later, her second season-ending injury in as many years.  As the tournament approaches and Syracuse is, once again, without its best scorer, the same question pops up.

How far can Syracuse go without Brittney Sykes?

3. Poor Attendance

Despite earning national rankings and accolades, Syracuse has struggled to get people to the Carrier Dome. The team draws an average of 674 for home games.

That's not only the worst in the ACC, but has been the lowest for any team in a Power-Five conference at times throughout the year.

It's a story that I've discussed on this site here. It's a story that the DO has reported on. It's a story that even the Post-Standard has talked about.  It's a story that, well, Quentin Hillsman has gotten pretty tired of talking about but one that will continue to linger as long as his on-court success continues to go unnoticed.

"We see that the people are not there, but at the same time we boost each other," guard Cornelia Fondren said. "Our coach has faith in us and we play off each other. We feed off each other."

4. Butler Struggles

Junior guard Brianna Butler has taken more shots than anyone on the team, despite being one of the lowest percentage shooters in Hillsman's rotation.  Butler has been asked to shoulder a lot of the scoring with Sykes out, but her efficiency has gone down.

A year ago, the one-time McDonald's All-American set a team record for most 3's in a season (100).

This season, Butler broke another record: most 3's taken in a single season.

But that responsibility hasn't been backed up by success.  Her field goal and 3-point percentages have dropped below 30 percent.  Of Syracuse's top six players in minutes, Butler is the only one who has more shot attempts than total points.

Hillsman has told Butler to keep shooting, a decision that's come at the expense of Syracuse's offensive numbers. The Orange's team field goal percentage (36.5) sits at dead last in the ACC and 293rd in the country.

Butler, though, has played much better of late. She's scored at least 12 points in the last six games and has peaked at the right time for the Orange.

5. Turnover Margin

Though the Orange isn't able to shoot better than opponents, it's able to shoot more. Syracuse leads all ACC teams in average turnover margin (+6.79) and comes in sixth nationwide.  That means the Orange is able to take almost nine more shots a game than the team it is going up against.

When not in the zone, the Orange plays an aggressive fullcourt press which confuses opponents who don't have good ball handlers.  That press got even better last season when the NCAA instituted the 10-second rule into the women's game.

6. A Tale of Two Seasons

Almost the entire season for Syracuse has followed one familiar pattern.

  • The Orange beat unranked teams
  • The Orange lose to ranked teams

That was the model for the first 22 games of the season when the Orange lost all seven games to top 25 teams, but won every single other one.

The Orange finally broke through on Feb. 5 by upsetting No. 13/11 North Carolina, in what turned out to be Syracuse's last shot against a ranked team.

"Our players came out and played with urgency," Hillsman said after the game. "That's what we talked about after our last game and going into these last couple of games. Because we knew that this could possibly be the last ranked team that we play for the season."

7. Quentin Hillsman

You'd be hard pressed to find a college with two basketball coaches who contrast as much as Jim Boeheim and Quentin Hillsman. While Coach Q has adopted Syracuse's patented zone defense, his personality and program operate much differently.  He uses a deep bench and isn't afraid of making wholesale lineup changes.  Game night attire goes beyond the usual shirt-and-tie look. Post-game press conferences can morph into comedy routines.

He once mocked a reporter who messed up the team schedule when asking a question.

He makes fun of the media for asking the same questions.

Oh yeah, he even jokingly offered me a volunteer position on his staff.