As a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament — the best seed in program history — the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team was expected to advance to the Sweet 16 at the very least this year. But unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
SU was upset 74-65 by sixth-seeded South Dakota State in the second round on Monday, in a game that saw the Orange come undone by way of getting beat on the boards, missing the mark outside and falling victim so some hot shooting by the opposing Jackrabbits.
None of this was necessarily a new recipe for a defeat this season. And similarly, the season ending short of the Sweet 16 wasn’t a new thing for the program, either.
Since its inaugural season in 1971-72, SU women’s basketball has made the NCAA Tournament 11 times. Of those teams, Quentin Hillsman has coached nine of them — quite the accomplishment. And while everyone remembers how great the 2016 Final Four run was, it also remains a rarity for Syracuse in its development as a program.
Because for as much as the Orange have had a ton of success in recent years (seven straight bids and eight from 2008 to 2019), the program remains sort of haunted by that next step they haven’t yet taken consistently. The aforementioned Final Four run remains the only time when SU has made it to the Sweet 16 or further.
That’s not a knock on the program or Hillsman, but rather a reminder of what remains just beyond the Orange’s reach right now. Hillsman has done an amazing job lifting Syracuse up from 9-20 in year one to the perennial NCAA Tournament team they’ve become. Yet there’s still this hump that’s sort of turned into a mountain.
Even this year, without UConn eventually waiting to derail a potential run, it just didn’t happen — despite two home games and very winnable matchups. Syracuse was 11-3 at the Dome coming into Monday night, with the only losses coming to ranked teams (Miami, Notre Dame, NC State). SDSU’s far from a bad opponent (they were just outside the top 25 at the end of the regular season), but losing while favored at home still shows there’s room left to grow for Syracuse.
And that’s the biggest takeaway from this season, really, despite the early loss. Syracuse has turned into a consistent NCAA Tournament team and is occasionally able to punch above their weight. That’s step one. Now the next phase is to turn that potential into a more regular thing and become a perennial Sweet 16 contender at the very least.
Even if Syracuse isn’t the next UConn/Notre Dame/Louisville/Baylor, there’s still ample room to grow into the next tier and encourage further investment. The ACC Network is poised to increase exposure for the program, and continued success will put more players in the WNBA. That, the ACC Network payouts and being fixtures in the NCAA Tournament should mean SU is able to at the very least continue to occupy their current station in the sport.
But they’ll have to take the next step at some point or else risk falling back to the pack in a very competitive league.