2012 Basketball Preview

Up and coming: Syracuse hopes to take step further as program with group of elite freshmen

Sam Maller | Asst. Photo Editor

Syracuse's freshman class is one of the best in the country. The Orange is hoping to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

Long an afterthought at Syracuse, Quentin Hillsman’s work in progress that is the women’s basketball team has given people a reason to pay attention. There’s an electricity around the team after the head coach brought in the best recruiting class in program history.

The freshmen are not only potential stars in years to come, but they may also finally give Hillsman the consistent winner he’s been trying to build.

“During the summer, to walk the campus and everybody asks are we the freshmen on the women’s basketball team, we were proud to say, ‘Yes,’” SU forward Brittney Sykes said. “All in all, we’re extremely happy to show why we came here.”

In 2007-08, SU reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. There was finally something tangible for Hillsman to sell his program on. In the last five years, Hillsman has signed top-level recruits like Kayla Alexander and landed elite transfers like Iasia Hemingway.

But the program also hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament since 2008, instead competing in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament for four straight seasons. With three top-100 recruits in Hillsman’s 2012 class, including McDonald’s All-Americans Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes, SU appears to have the talent to get back to the NCAA tournament.

Syracuse landed its first top-100 recruit in Cornelia Fondren in September. Then in early November, Brittney Sykes, a second top-100 recruit, committed. Two days later it was Brianna Butler.

The five-player class was ranked No. 6 in the nation by ESPN. It was perhaps the most important piece of the structure Hillsman is building at SU.

“We’ve brought in some very good players that have a chance to come in and immediately impact,” Hillsman said. “So we’re excited about the progress we’ve made in our roster and our depth at positions, and we’re really excited about our young kids.”

But the crown jewel, the shining light atop Hillsman’s structure, could have come in February 2011.

Breanna Stewart was a star forward at Cicero-North Syracuse High School. Hillsman had a prized recruit — a potential program-changing piece — in his own backyard. But Connecticut, the most storied program in the nation, swooped in and grabbed the nation’s top recruit.

“When you look at recruiting, you lose more than you get,” Hillsman said. “If you tell me that I lose Breanna Stewart, but I get the No. 6 class in the country, I’m very satisfied.”

Fondren, Sykes and Butler are joined by Taylor Ford and Pachis Roberts — both highly regarded recruits in their own right — to make up the freshman class. Each brings a unique skill set to the table, and all are expected to contribute immediately.

Fondren is the leader of the tight freshman class. The cement that could hold this team together long-term. Sykes is incredibly athletic. As a participant in the McDonald’s All-American Game dunk contest, she brings excitement the program has rarely seen.

Butler could be the star. She was the highest-rated recruit. Ford is a knockdown shooter who could thrive in Syracuse’s inside-out offense. Roberts gives the Orange another elite shooter who can also attack the rim.

Alone, none of them may be Stewart, but together they create a formidable force that could make up at least parts of the Syracuse starting lineup for the next four seasons.

“We’re a system where players don’t leave early, so obviously we’ve got a great group of players to really grow up together in this program, and that for us is the most important thing,” Hillsman said. “We’re just really excited to have the kind of players that we have where they can compete at a high level.”

With the departure of Hemingway, the offense is expected to take on a bit of a different shape. Each of these freshmen will be immediately responsible for part of that change.

The Orange will use more of an inside-out offense — feeding the ball in to returning leading-scorer Alexander and kicking it out to shooters on the perimeter — rather than the high-low it employed in the past. That’s where guards Ford and Roberts come in.

SU will also utilize a more open-court, fast break-oriented offense to put Sykes’ skills on display.

And while some excel with certain skills, they all bring all-around games to the table.

“They all can shoot,” junior guard Rachel Coffey said. “They’re all vocal, they see the floor, play defense, they work hard.”

The freshmen first came together over the summer. The five players enrolled in SU’s SummerStart program.

The six-week program not only gave the freshmen the opportunity to get to know the campus, but also to spend six weeks getting to know their teammates for what could be the next four seasons.

A tight-knit bond was forged during those six weeks, and that could be what separates Syracuse’s freshman class from other elite freshman classes nationwide.

“I’m a huge fan of team chemistry,” Sykes said. “The freshmen, we’re all like basically family. We have a pretty strong bond. … We love each other — too much.”

But the group did know each other before coming to Syracuse for the summer, at least somewhat.

During the recruiting process, several of the players talked to each other. They all made their decisions within just a few months of each other and were influenced by the potential to play with other elite freshmen.

“We knew each other kind of coming in,” Butler said. “It was one of the key factors that helped me decide coming to Syracuse, so I think that helps when you’re coming in, and also the  chemistry was already there.”

The freshmen’s accelerated growth should help that. So far, their older teammates rave about how game-ready they are.

This class could be the one to put Hillsman’s program over the top.

“She’s going to do well, obviously,” Hillsman said. “But I really thought that these players that we brought in are going to get us to the level that we need to be.”

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