Believe it or not, there is a team with Final Four potential playing in the Dome this year. No, it’s not Jim Boeheim’s squad. It’s Quentin Hillsman’s Syracuse women’s hoops team.
It wasn’t that long ago that Hillsman had Syracuse women’s hoops in the national championship game. The end result was rather lopsided, but Hillsman has the knowledge to coach this team on another deep run.
The Orange had its biggest test of the young season so far, going on the road to face the No. 1 team in the country. Beating Louisville was always a tall task, but Syracuse kept it close throughout the first half and showed it can hang with the top teams in the game. There is definitely room for growth still within this team. That being said, the game was a lot closer than I think the final score would indicate.
It was just the second loss of the season for the Orange. The first came in Chapel Hill against UNC. The Tar Heels are nothing special, but that loss coincided with a tough night shooting and poor ball movement, resulting in a game to forget. Syracuse avenged that loss already with an 88-76 win in the rematch. That might not feel like much, but it shows this group can learn from its mistakes and grow as a unit.
This team has all the makings of a giant slayer in the NCAA tournament. Any team hoping to make a deep run needs to have a talented, veteran guard. ‘Cuse has two. The fearless Tiana Mangakahia is fourth in the nation in assists per game. She is the unquestioned leader of this team. Her passion is clear whenever she steps on the court and her teammates feed off her energy.
Her backcourt partner, Kira Lewis, has struggled to find her shot this season, but leads the team in minutes and steals. It would be a mistake to underestimate her presence on the court. Her experience is invaluable.
Of course, you usually need some young stars who are coming into their own down the stretch. Syracuse has a pair of top-10 recruits from 2020 in Kamilla Cardoso and Priscilla Williams. Cardoso is tall and fierce. She commands the paint as the tallest player in the ACC, standing 6’7”. ‘Cuse is third in the nation in blocks per game and sixth in rebounds per game, in large part because of Cardoso’s presence in the middle of that zone.
She has not backed down from the challenge of being a top-five recruit on offense either. She leads the Orange in points per game while shooting 63 percent from the floor. This is all while playing just 20 minutes per game as she continues to ease into her college career. If you need a crash course on her potential, check out her highlights against Miami. That performance earned ACC freshman of the week honors.
Williams is in a similar role when it comes to playing time, but offers Syracuse a crucial piece of offensive gameplay: range. She leads the team with 18 made 3s in eight games. She is hitting them at a good rate as well, knocking down 44 percent of her shots from behind the arc.
Even fellow freshmen Kiara Fisher has looked sharp in limited minutes. This seven-person 2020 recruiting class is clearly going to be the backbone of this Syracuse women’s hoops program for years to come.
Another crucial aspect of any Final Four team is depth. Digna Strautmane is not flashy, but she plays her part well for this Orange squad. She is a willing rebounder and consistent scorer around the basket. She and Emily Engstler, who leads the team in rebounds, are those critical role players who hold this whole unit together.
The contributions don’t stop there either. Amaya Finklea-Guity and Maeva Djalbi-Tadbi are two experienced players with solidified roles on this squad. They each play about 15 minutes per game and give Hillsman two reliable options when he needs to rest his top players.
What’s more is it seems like Hillsman is entering the next phase of this team’s development. Since ‘Cuse has returned from a nearly month-long layoff due to COVID-19, Coach Q is riding with his starters a bit longer. Cardoso and Williams have both seen their minutes increase over the past three games. Mangakahia and Lewis hardly leave the floor if they do at all.
It might be a bit early, but let’s take a look at what the path to the Final Four might look like for Syracuse. Charlie Creme has the Orange as a six-seed in his latest Bracketology. That feels accurate considering ‘Cuse ranks 23rd in the AP poll and 20th in the Coaches Poll.
Reaching the semifinals would require them to beat Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Maryland and then Louisville in Creme’s latest projections. There are no easy roads to the Final Four, but that also does not feel particularly daunting. With roughly two months left in the season, there is also still plenty of time for the Orange to improve its seed line. Hopefully, that would set up some easier matchups.
We still have a long way to go, but there is plenty of reason for optimism and excitement in Central New York as we march toward the madness.