We are less than one week away from Syracuse women’s basketball season opener at Stony Brook on Nov. 29. The Orange, who are currently ranked No. 21 (Coaches Poll) and No. 23 (AP Poll) nationally, look to improve from their 2019-20 campaign. Last season was the first time since 2008-09 that Syracuse did not win at least 22 games.
Looking towards this year, there are some specific areas each starter can focus on to boost the Orange to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This list is based on my projected starting five: Tiana Mangakahia, Kiara Lewis, Emily Engstler, Digna Strautmane, and Amaya Finklea-Guity.
Tiana Mangakahia: Adjusting back to live play
Mangakahia missed last season while battling breast cancer. She has not played in a live, competitive basketball game since March 25, 2019, when Syracuse lost to South Dakota State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
In last week’s media availability, Mangakahia spoke on her current shape and speed: “Even when I watch the film, I’m like, ‘Dang, I was good,’ but now I would say probably 85%. But I feel like I haven’t played a game yet. I can practice all I want. I can shoot all I want. But when I get into that game situation, I feel like it would be different.”
Coming back from any injury is an adjustment. I have no doubt that Mangakahia is still an incredible basketball player. There may be a transition period over the first few games of the season as she gets back in the swing of things.
Kiara Lewis: Sharing space with Mangakahia while staying confident
Mangakahia left big shoes to fill last season and Lewis did a fantastic job of filling them. This year, Mangakahia is back and both players will have to share floor space. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the duo of Lewis and Mangakahia could be the best backcourt in college basketball if used correctly.
Lewis will be at her best this season if she stays confident in who she is as a player and ignores the comparisons with Mangakahia. Lewis’ performance last year got her on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which honors the best shooting guard in the country. Her role will be different this season, but if Lewis can mirror her execution and confidence from 2019, she will be golden.
Emily Engstler: Going from good to great
I wrote about Engstler’s potential to become one of the best players in the ACC going into this season. With the assist queen Mangakahia back on the floor, shooters like Engstler and Strautmane will get more opportunities to score. And with an extended offseason due to COVID-19, Engstler has had more time to train and prepare for Sunday. Even Coach Q said Engstler’s is in the best shape of her life.
In her third year in Central New York, it is time for Engstler to make the jump from a good player to a great player after coming in as one of the top recruits in program history.
Engstler did not appear on any awards watch list, but she has all season to jump on one, or multiple.
Digna Strautmane and Amaya Finklea-Guity: Recovering from last year’s dip
Last season, Strautmane saw a slight dip in her performance. In her first two seasons, she averaged 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest. In 2019-20, the Latvia native averaged 8.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. As I mentioned above, with Mangakahia back in the mix, Strautmane will likely see more looks to shoot. With the improvement of the team as a whole this season, I do not believe Strautmane’s stats will fall again but it will be important to keep an eye on it.
Amaya Finklea-Guity: Staying consistent
Over the last three years, Finklea-Guity has produced similar numbers each season. She may see a drop in her minutes with the addition of top-ranked recruit Kamilla Cardoso. With a change in her role, it will be important for Finklea-Guity to keep her consistency despite any minute changes.
Bonus: Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi: Rebounding
I added Djaldi-Tabdi to this article because she is Syracuse’s go-to sixth woman. One area of improvement for the French native is her rebounding. Djaldi-Tabdi’s rebounding saw a dip last season from 163 to 108. Engstler and Finklea-Guity are big board contributors, but the Orange need another player to grab rebounds if they are going to compete with the other bigs in the ACC.
Which areas of focus do you see for these players? Let us know in the comments!