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Syracuse’s season was never destined for the Final Four, but there was still value in experience

September 16, 2020

first_imgSTARKVILLE, Miss. — During Media Day in October, before SU had played a game, head coach Quentin Hillsman was questioned repeatedly about his team’s youth. He had a similar answer every time.“We’re a very young basketball team,” Hillsman said on Oct. 20. “But I’m very excited for this season.”Hillsman knew on Media Day what everyone knows now: Syracuse was talented and pretty deep, but ultimately this season was a predestined learning curve.At times, SU shone, like when Tiana Mangakahia and Miranda Drummond scored 44 and 38, respectively, in back-to-back games, including an upset of then-No. 11 Florida State. But in the moments that mattered most, against top-tier teams and most recently against Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Orange needed an offensive spark or defensive stand that never materialized.Help never came and the Cowgirls ended the Orange’s (22-9, 10-6 Atlantic Coast) season in the Round of 64. The loss to OSU highlighted the underlying truth to SU’s season: The Orange was always a team trying to find itself, trying to mesh. With an eight-player rotation of five transfers, two freshmen and one returner, everything the Orange did this year was a plus because Syracuse was a year away from where it wants to be.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“But what a great experience for our team,” Hillsman said after SU’s loss Saturday, “and we’re all coming back.”The cupboards weren’t bare — SU had the talent to hold its own in the ACC and pull off two Top-25 upsets — but ultimately there wasn’t enough. This became clear when SU ran into the elites of women’s college basketball: Mississippi State, Notre Dame and Louisville.The Orange hung with those teams but couldn’t topple any of them. Syracuse had chances against those powerhouses, but a few late plays were enough for the favorite to stiff-arm SU.Those handful of plays kept Syracuse from being the top-tier team it wants to be. But this season, with this team, that’s fine. Next year, experiences this time around may be the difference in pulling a Top 10 upset.“It’s hard to say right now how we will be next year,” Drummond said. “Yeah, I think we’ll be good.”It became clear that this season wouldn’t be a rebuild, but it wasn’t a reload either. It was something in between, a re-tuning, perhaps. Still, the accomplishments are impressive.Syracuse raced out to an 11-0 start, upset then-No. 11 Florida State and then-No. 17 Duke and closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak. All told, the Orange piled up 22 wins and 10 of those came in arguably the best conference in the country.For a team that graduated two of the best players in the history of its program and started one player with game experience at SU prior to this season — Cooper, a sophomore who wasn’t, and still isn’t, the top scoring option — that’s an admirable showing.“At the end of the day, we have a very young team,” Hillsman said. “… that headed to the NCAA Tournament and competed like crazy all year long.”And realistically, the Orange is going to be better next year.Beyond all five starters returning, several players on Syracuse’s current roster will work into the fold.Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi and Marie-Paule Foppossi, two French freshman forwards who redshirted this season, should turn a thin frontcourt into a deep stable of bigs, SU coaches said. Ohio State transfer guard Kiara Lewis will run, press and shoot 3s in Syracuse’s scheme.A brand-new infusion of talent is coming, too, as Syracuse brings in a Top 10 recruiting class for the second-straight season. This time around it’ll be Kadiatou Sissoko and Emily Engstler, the No. 10 and No. 11 recruits in the 2018 class, respectively, boosting an already-stacked lineup.Next fall, SU will have an experienced group of returning starters and potentially a seven- or eight-deep bench featuring at least six former five-star recruits.“Next year will be a lot different,” Mangakahia said Saturday. “We’re returning so we know the system already, we’ve played in the program for a year. … I think it’ll be better.”Help is on the way. And Hillsman knew that all along. Although his goals never waver — he wants to go undefeated and win a national championship and said as much after Saturday’s loss — this year’s team wasn’t going to do that.But what this year’s team did is set the table for the fall. It won 20-plus games. It saw a group of 11 new players experience the ups and downs of a grueling nonconference and ACC slate. It played in the NCAA Tournament.“This is our sixth-straight tournament,” Hillsman said. “Program is headed in the right direction. I’m really happy with where we are.”So if and when all the pieces come into place next season, Hillsman should be excited to coach a talented and experienced team.Andrew Graham is the sports editor for The Daily Orange where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at aegraham@syr.edu or @A_E_Graham. Comments Published on March 19, 2018 at 12:10 amcenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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