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Syracuse women’s basketball: What is preventing the Orange from being a top-tier ACC squad?

With one of the most talented rosters in recent years, Syracuse was predicted to be one of the top ACC teams this year. What is holding them back?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team currently stands at 9-4 on the season with a 6-4 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play. ‘Cuse started the year ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll and the USA TODAY/WBCA Top 25 Coaches Poll, appearing as high as No. 18/16. After dropping three of their last five contests, the Orange fell out of the national polls.

With a stellar veteran squad and the highest-ranked freshman class in program history, Syracuse should be having a season that’s closer to what No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 North Carolina State are enjoying. But, they are currently unranked and sit in fourth in the conference. What is preventing ‘Cuse from being a top tier team?

This Syracuse roster is one of the most talented squads Central New York has seen in the last few years. ‘Cuse returned four starters from last season as well as All-American Tiana Mangakahia, who sat out the 2019-20 season to battle breast cancer. On paper, the combination of Mangakahia and redshirt senior Kiara Lewis is one of the best backcourts in the ACC this season. Both players are on multiple national watch lists, including Mangakahia on the lists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, Wade Trophy, Naismith Trophy, and the John R. Wooden Award. Lewis is on the lists for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, Naismith Trophy, and John R. Wooden Award. On the season, Mangakahia is averaging 10.8 points and eight assists per game, while Lewis contributes 13.5 points and 1.7 steals per contest.

In addition to Mangakahia and Lewis, Coach Quentin Hillsman has multiple reliable veterans at his disposal. Emily Engstler is making a name for herself as ACC Sixth Player of the Year, averaging a near double-double this season with 10.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest. Three-year starters Digna Strautmane and Amaya Finklea-Guity are also contributing for the Orange, as well as 2018-19 All-ACC Freshman Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi.

In addition to the vets, Coach Q has seven freshmen on his team from the No. 4-ranked 2020 recruiting class. Kamilla Cardoso and Priscilla Williams earned starting roles in Game One and have shown exactly why. Cardoso, the highest-ranked player in program history at No. 5 nationally, is on the Lisa Leslie Preseason Watch List and is a two-time ACC Freshman of the Week. Williams, the fourth-highest recruit at No. 9, was also named ACC Freshman of the Week this season. Cardoso is leading Syracuse with 14.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while Williams is adding 10.6 points per contest.

I list all of these stats to remind readers how good this team should be compared to their 9-4 record. Syracuse is talented enough to be ranked first or second in the conference and top-15 nationally. But once again, the Orange continue to only be among the top 40 programs in women’s basketball, and toward the middle of the ACC.

NCAA Womens Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at how the team has played recently, Syracuse continues to start games slow. The Orange are forced to make large comebacks late in order to win or keep the final score close. In the last five games, Syracuse has scored 103 points in the fourth quarter, compared to opponent’s 48 points. A team with this amount of talent should not have to score 20+ points to win against a middle-tier team, or any team for that matter. With one of the most loaded rosters in the country, this pattern does not make sense. I am going to chalk this up to team chemistry and the COVID effect.

It goes without saying that this season is unique and presents its own challenges. A big challenge is the schedule, which seemly is affecting ‘Cuse’s team chemistry.

Mangakahia is responsible for 60 of the team’s 225 turnovers on the year. That is over 25 percent. However, like a quarterback throwing an interception, Mangakahia’s turnovers aren’t all her fault. She is dishing the ball out to two freshmen who has only played 13 college basketball games. Mangakahia also missed all of last season. So, growing pains are inevitable.

Unfortunately, this season isn’t taking too kindly to pains. The team did not have any scrimmages and only played three non-conference games before jumping into competition in the best basketball conference. Add in the season being in limbo over the summer and the team’s month-long COVID pause, the natural chemistry is delayed.

As a Syracuse fan, I still believe that the Orange will make a postseason run. Hillsman is a great coach and this team is stacked, but there is something that keeps pulling them back down to earth. If Syracuse keeps recruiting at this level, the expectations are soon going to rise for more than just an NCAA Tournament run that ends in the second round. Is team chemistry the issue? Should we just chalk this specific season up to COVID? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!