Syracuse Orange women’s basketball head coach Quentin Hillsman has made a lot of memorable statements in press conferences over the last 15 years. In my time working with and covering the program, one Coach Q moment has always stuck with me.
Back in January 2019, the then-ranked No. 13 Orange had lost two straight conference games to unranked opponents. In a postgame press conference, Coach Hillsman was asked about the status of his program.
He simply stated: “We’re gonna be alright.”
Yes, this clip is from 2019 and unrelated to the current situation with Syracuse. But when 10 Orange players entered the transfer portal this week, I immediately thought of this sound bite. In my opinion, Coach Q should feel the same way about his program now as he did during this press conference.
Ten transfers is an eyebrow-raising number at face value. But, let’s examine each player leaving:
Kiara Lewis, Digna Strautmane, Amaya Finklea-Guity, and Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi will graduate from Syracuse this May. Opting to do your graduate year at another school is very common and without the extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, 2021 would have been their last season with the Orange either way. I don’t say this to minimize their Syracuse careers: all four of these players contributed significantly to ‘Cuse nation over the past few years and will always be remembered for that. However, it is important to note that Coach Q was likely prepared to play next season without them.
Lauren Fitzmaurice, a walk-on, appeared in six games in two seasons for the Orange and did not participate in the 2020-21 season. Taleah Washington, Khamya McNeal, and Faith Blackstone were suspended for the entire postseason for a violation of team rules. Maud Huijbens played in just one game this year. Q clearly has no problem giving freshmen an opportunity to play (@Kamilla Cardoso & Priscilla Williams). So, these young players are probably looking for a new program that they will fit better in and will receive more playing time in. They maybe could have been contributors for ‘Cuse in future seasons, but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way and hopefully they will find the right fit elsewhere.
The real surprise transfer for Syracuse this offseason is Emily Engstler. A three-year veteran, Engstler would have been the leader of the Orange next season. Replacing her roster spot will likely be the focus of this offseason and may include adding more than one player to fill Engstler’s shoes.
The portal is wreaking havoc on the entire basketball community, not just in Syracuse. A recent Associated Press article spoke on how the transfer portal has created this new avenue of recruiting. According to the article, there are 781 women’s players and 1,068 men’s players in the NCAA portal this season. Student athletes leave programs for numerous reasons, including playing time, wanting a different system, or even wanting to be closer to home (especially after COVID/quarantine).
Transferring is the college-version of free agency. With the extra year of eligibility available, Power Five programs across the country are seeing high movements this offseason, for example, at Clemson (7), Mississippi State (7), Texas Tech (7), and Duke (6). It is also important to note that players can choose to come back to their original school, the portal is not set in stone. There shouldn’t be a negative stigma around players wanting new opportunities elsewhere.
Could Syracuse have used some of the transferring players to make a postseason run next year? Maybe. Is 10 players leaving at once a sign of concern? Maybe, but transferring is a normal process of recruiting nowadays and shouldn’t set off unnecessary alarm bells on programs. Am I a ‘look at the glass half full’ kind of person? Clearly.
In my season recap, I stated that something in the program needed to be adjusted for Syracuse to move past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe a clean slate is that first step. Some of these players have been with the program since 2017. Now, Cardoso, Williams, and Hyman are the only ‘Cuse veterans on the squad with experience. A fast-paced, young team could be just what Coach Q needs to advance to the later rounds of the Big Dance. As of March 30, Syracuse will have 12 players on its 2021-22 squad - one transfer, five returners, and six freshmen. My guess for the rest of the offseason is that Syracuse will focus on gaining one or two more veteran transfers to replace Engstler and round out the team. Luckily for the Orange, there are over 700 players for them to choose from.
‘Cuse nation, in the wise words of a Coach Q 2019 press conference that for some reason I still have saved on my Instagram: “We’re gonna be alright.”
Quick Look at the 2021-22 Roster
Shalexxus Aaron, G, Redshirt Senior - Transfer from USC
Teisha Hyman, G, Redshirt Sophomore
Kamilla Cardoso, C, Sophomore
Priscilla Williams, G, Sophomore
Ava Irvin, G, Sophomore
Kiara Fisher, G, Sophomore
Latasha Lattimore, F, Freshman
Shayeann Day-Wilson, G, Freshman
Amani Bartlett, F, Freshman
Nyah Wilson, G, Freshman
Julianna Walker, G, Freshman
Laura Salmeron, G, Freshman - Originally a member of the 2020 recruiting class but was unable to join the team last season due to the pandemic (Lives in Spain). A three-star recruit, Salmeron was ranked No. 31 in her position by ESPN.