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Syracuse women’s basketball: confidence check at the halfway point of non-conference play

Lots to like as we approach the season’s quarter mark.

Syracuse v Virginia Tech Photo by Ryan Hunt/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team finds itself just over the halfway mark of the non-conference portion of this season’s schedule and, compared to last season, momentum is riding high incredibly early for the program.

After struggling out of the gate to out of conferences in the 2022-2023 season, Syracuse sits at 5-1 with three of its most difficult non-con opponents out of the way: Maryland (Elite Eight run last year), Northern Iowa (a WNIT team in 22-23) and Iowa State (the reigning Big 12 champions). The Orange most recently came off back-to-back victories this past weekend over the Panthers and Cyclones, both by double-digits margins, to win the 2023 South Point Thanksgiving Shootout in Las Vegas.

The Orange has begun this year on a very promising start, a great sign for the team moving forward in Felisha Legette-Jack’s second season. Syracuse finished with a 20-13 overall record in Legette-Jack’s debut season, but the program fell just short of an NCAA Tournament.

The primary reason: general inconsistency last year, particularly since Syracuse heated up towards the end of last season but dealt with tough blows against its non-conference schedule.

Barring any disaster in the Orange’s next five games, the latter of those won’t be a problem this time around.

Syracuse faces one final “tougher” non-conference opponent this Thursday night: the Alabama Crimson Tide at home as part of the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge. Alabama is currently sitting at 7-1 and is projected to be a nine-seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology update. After that, the rest of the slate includes very winnable games against Northeastern, Ohio, Cornell and Saint Francis.

Similar to the game against Maryland, the Crimson Tide will be an early-season test against a playoff-caliber program. Syracuse mostly fared poorly last season against the eventual tournament-bound teams, but after showing glimpses of an upset against the Terrapins and a brilliant performance in Vegas, there’s reason to have optimism.

The Orange are not just beating teams either: they’re crushing them. Syracuse’s margin of victory in its five wins sits at nearly 29 points, while Syracuse’s lone loss was by two points (83-81 to Maryland).

Part of the Orange’s success this season has been thanks to the returning starting trio of Dyaisha Fair, Alaina Rice and Georgia Woolley. Fair (18.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game) has picked up right where she left off All-ACC first team campaign last season. Despite having to overcome tactical efforts from opponents to deny her off-ball, she’s still been effective in providing a steal flow of offense while contributing defensively with her knack for getting steals.

The added defensive pressure has opened the door for Rice to take on a larger share of the offense, and done that she has. Rice’s scoring is up from 6.6 points per game last year to 15.3 PPG so far this season, an increase of almost nine points. While I expect the hot shooting (53% overall, 55% from three) to drastically cool off, her offensive improvement shined in Vegas: she had a career-high 26 points vs Iowa State, averaged 21.5 points per game and was selected as the Most Outstanding Player in the South Point Shootout.

And, despite missing the start of the season due to injury, Woolley is coming off of back-to-back 20-point games in Vegas and has clearly defined herself as the second scorer on this team. The main thing to watch for now is whether one or both of Rice and Woolley can keep that offensive production going once ACC play starts.

The same goes for Syracuse’s role players who have also stepped up, namely Alyssa Latham, Kyra Wood and Izabel Varejão. All three have shined offensively in spurts while helping to fortify Legette-Jack’s zone defense with excellent effort on defense.

There’s a lot to like about the Orange up to this point in the season. Now it’s time to see if Syracuse can close out business against the rest of its non-conference slate.