At the end of the 2015 college basketball season, the Syracuse Orange were bounced from the NCAA Tournament wanting more. They had won their opening-round game against Nebraska as an eight-seed but then fell to one-seed South Carolina by 29 points in the second round.
Folks felt positive about the program entering 2015-16. Of course, even the most optimistic prognostications grossly underestimated how good and how far Syracuse would advance.
The Orange won 30 games, went 13-3 in the ACC and made it all the way to the National Championship against the UConn Huskies, their first title game in school history. They were noncompetitive in the finals, but that was par for the course with UConn. On their way there, the Orange made people take notice. They even defeated the South Carolina squad that pushed them from the tournament the season before. 2015-16 was a resounding success on the Syracuse campus. Head coach Quentin Hillsman has 200 career victories at the school.
Now, it’s about living up to new and exciting expectations for him and the program.
Four of the team’s five starters from last season will be back. The only departure was guard Brianna Butler, the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago. Reserve guards Cornelia Fondren and Maggie Morrison also graduated. What is back is a slew of upperclassmen ready to dominate again. Four starting seniors are back from the national finals team: Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes in the backcourt, forward Isabella Slim and center Briana Day. Outside of Slim, who wasn’t a big scorer, the other three ladies were responsible for more than 36 points per game.
Peterson returns as the team leader. She led Cuse in minutes, points, field goals, free throws and assists. She was also one of the main reasons the team was so prolific at forcing opponent turnovers. Six separate players averaged at least a steal per game in 2015-16. One of those players was Butler. However, the bigger loss with Butler gone will be her outside shooting. Syracuse led the conference in three pointers per game mostly thanks to Butlers’ chucking. The team made 8.8 threes per contest, the 12th-best mark in the country. Butler was responsible for far and away the most attempts and makes from distance. If the team hopes to recapture that spacing again this season, it will need someone to step up into that void left by Butler.
Perhaps fortunately, Butler wasn’t overly efficient from deep, shooting only 31.1 percent. Her success was built upon quantity not quality of shots. As a team, the Orange shot pretty poorly from three. They will hope some of the incoming freshmen can help fix that shortcoming. There will be five freshmen guards on Hillsman’s roster who all have a chance of competing for playing time. They are Chelayne Bailey, Gabrielle Cooper, Davida Dale (redshirt), Desiree Elmore, and Caroline Rowe.
Elmore is the best of the bunch. She is Syracuse’s first five-star recruit since Butler’s class, and she may be able to replace the outside shooting of Butler. The addition of Elmore, along with improvements from subs such as Abby Grant and Julia Chandler, could bring the Orange back to the level they were at. For a team that thrived on constant pressure both offensively and defensively, finding and extending the rotation is key.
Living up to expectations is not easy, and with Syracuse women’s securely on the national radar that is exactly the case. But coach Hillsman isn’t worried about that last point though. He sees his team more locked in than ever and in better shape. He went on to say, “there is a confidence about us...It's not [just] talk anymore.” While downplaying the thought that opponents would be gunning for the Orange this season, Hillsman acknowledged that he has what he thinks is the best backcourt in the country, and the team could find itself near the top 10 in the rankings.
He was right about the latter; only time will tell if he’s right about the former as well.