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Syracuse women’s basketball: poised for a bounce-back season

A new coach, a changing culture, and a fresh crop of talent are paving the way for a promising season for WBB.

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NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Tournament-Clemson at Syracuse William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Right now the talk around Syracuse sports is focused on football. However, it isn’t too early to begin talking hoops, especially as the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball program enters a new chapter in the team’s history.

Amidst SU’s victory over Louisville and continued salivation over a potential Heisman campaign for Sean Tucker, WBB is quietly building up the foundation for a return back to the spotlight.

Since the women’s team pushed their way to an NCAA Championship run in 2016, the Orange ranked as one of the most consistent ACC teams. Between 2014 and 2021, SU finished between third and eighth in ACC regular season games, with seven NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons. As recently as two seasons ago, the Orange advanced past the First Round in the NCAA tournament.

But recently, the success of the women’s team came to a screeching halt.

In 2021, long-time head coach Quentin Hillsman resigned over allegations of misconduct and bullying toward players. Hillsman’s replacement, interim coach Von Reed, all but disappointed in his lone season with the team.

On the court, the Orange didn’t stand a chance against any team this past season. SU finished 11-18 in their 2021-2022 campaign. Since 2010, it’s the only year SU finished below .500 and the third-straight season the Orange didn’t win at least 20 games. After an over 30-point victory against UMBC in mid-December, the women’s team finished last season 3-14. This includes a nearly 20-point defeat against 13-seed Clemson in the 2022 ACC Tournament.

At first glance, the Orange appear to be heading toward a steady decline.

But when you’re down, the only way to go is back up. There’s no better way to explain the approach for SU’s women’s basketball team for this upcoming season. With a culture change off the court and new players on the court, the Orange are all but set to prove last season was nothing but a fluke.

Changing the Culture Changes the Product

Improvements for the WBB begin at the top with a new voice in the locker room.

In March, SU announced that Felisha Legette-Jack would become the Orange’s seventh head coach in team history.

Legette-Jack brings basketball expertise, coaching experience, and most importantly, a love for Syracuse University. She become the first SU women’s basketball player to have her jersey retired in the JMA Wireless Dome. Legette-Jack played for the Orange for four seasons, winning the 1985 Big East Rookie of the Year, and is the all-time scoring and rebounding leader in team history.

As a coach, Legette-Jack is a former assistant coach for Syracuse, Boston College, and Michigan State. Recently, she was the head coach for nine seasons for the Buffalo Bulls. under Legette-Jack, the Bulls finished 25-8 on the year and 16-4 against other MAC teams this past season.

Legette-Jack provides the Orange with a locker room voice and a clear presence off the court. Since Hillsman’s drastic departure and Reed’s disappointing coaching campaign, WBB didn’t have an appropriate culture for success on the court.

The lack of leadership off the hardwood impacted the Orange during the season. In the past year, 18 players who were on the roster or who committed to the team jumped ship amidst the internal turmoil.

After over a decade of consistent success, last year was nothing but a season from hell for WBB. Above all else, Legette-Jack provides the Orange with a fresh start.

A New Crop of Talent

Legette-Jack’s appeal is already translating to an upgrade in talent for the women’s basketball team.

In April, the women’s basketball team added two huge transfer players to their team for the upcoming season. Literally.

The Orange acquired 6’4 center Olivia Owens, who played a critical role last season in Kentucky’s success. The team also added Kyra Wood, who flashed promise at Temple and provides the WBB with more depth down low.

In July, SU landed transfer forward Dariauna Lewis. Lewis previously played for Alabama A&M, where she averaged 15.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game.

At her best, Lewis gives the Orange an efficient jolt on offense who can hold her own defensively. At 6’1, she gives the team a major boost to a team that lacked size and physicality this past season.

More recently, the Orange received a 2023 commitment from ESPN Top 75 player Alyssa Latham. The 6’1 forward from Illinois received interest from multiple schools from the ACC and the Big Ten.

Based on her on-court play, Latham gives the Orange some much-needed size on both ends of the court. Latham excels as a pick-and-roll and help defender, and given her frame, she could be crucial for the team’s defense. On offense, she flashed her ability to post-up, score inside, and attack off the dribble.

Last season, the Orange ranked as one of the worst defenses in the ACC. In 2022, the WBB finished seventh in points scored per game but last in points allowed per game. For context, the team allowed 4.1 points more than the second-worst defense in the ACC (Clemson).

This year, Legette-Jack will embrace a tough-nose defense while maintaining the team’s production on offense. With the incoming talent, the Orange bring some much-needed defensive versatility, hustle, and rebounding.

2022-2023: A Return to Relevance?

The women’s basketball team will progress back to the mean and return, at a bare minimum, to a .500 team. Recent history and prior internal issues overshadow the success WBB had and will continue to have.

On the court, guard Teisha Hyman returns for a third season for the Orange after averaging 16.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.5 steals per game in 2022. The team also brings back one of their few bright spots from this past season: guard depth.

She’ll be joined by two of Coach Legette-Jack’s stars at Buffalo: Dyaisha Fair and Georgia Woolley. Fair averaged over 23 points per game last season while Woolley was MAC Newcomer of the Year. This trio on the perimeter will give the Syracuse rebuild a jump start.

To begin the year, the team can get the ball rolling against a relatively easy schedule. Currently, out of the 11 current games released on the WBB schedule, Yale is the only major school that should be seen as a threat. Realistically, the Orange can get off to a hot start.

But the real question is how the women’s team can put up a fight against other ACC opponents. The Orange were a dismal 1-9 against AP Top-25 opponents and 4-14 against the ACC last season, tied for the fourth-worst record in conference play in the ACC.

At the very least, the Orange can beat the teams they are expected to beat. The real question is whether the team can up their play against the best of the best in the ACC. WBB is looking to move on from a dreaded 2021-2022 campaign and find a way to return back to prominence.