Women's Basketball

Stocking up: Syracuse, Hillsman load up with premier recruiting classes

Sam Maller | Asst. Photo Editor

Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman brought in the nation's No. 6 recruiting class a year ago, headlined by guards Cornelia Fondren, Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes.

When Brittney Sykes came to Syracuse for her unofficial recruiting visit in her junior year of high school, SU gave her something no other school offered.

Carmen Tyson-Thomas and Elashier Hall gave her a nickname: “2 percent.” From that moment forward, Sykes has felt at home at Syracuse.

“They told me I was skinny and asked if I drank milk,” Sykes said with a grin. “I told them that no, I didn’t drink milk, and they’re like, ‘No, you look like you drink milk. We’re going to call you 2 percent.’ It was the only college that gave me a legit nickname, so I think it meant something.”

On Nov. 7, 2011, she verbally committed to the Orange.

The signing of Sykes, last year’s No. 30 overall prospect, according to ESPN HoopGurlz, helped Syracuse assemble the No. 6 recruiting class in the country last season under seventh-year head coach Quentin Hillsman. The Orange started three freshmen all seasonlong — Sykes, No. 13 recruit Brianna Butler and No. 74 Cornelia Fondren – en route to a third-place Big East finish, a top-25 national ranking and SU’s first NCAA tournament berth in five years.

Hillsman tries to keep things simple during the recruiting process. He and his staff actively pursue 10-12 players every year in the context of two key criteria: finding winners and those who fit into SU’s quick, aggressive system.

“First of all, we try to find players used to winning, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Hillsman said. “Second, we want to recruit to our system — we need to get length. We need to get athletes to press and run and play long on defense.”

The winning experience was abundant in this year’s freshman class. Butler and Taylor Ford, who are high school teammates, led Nazareth (N.Y.) Regional High School to a No. 3 national ranking during their senior year. Pachis Roberts, who is no longer with the Orange, went 33-0 en route to a Georgia state championship during her senior year. Fondren won back-to-back Memphis City Championships at Overton High School in Nashville, Tenn.

Hillsman said he works actively with high school and AAU coaches to acquire accurate information on players’ interests, what other colleges have been recruiting SU’s prospects and gauge which players can fit into the Syracuse system.

It’s a two-way street, though: The player needs to be sold on the team. Overton head coach Lynn Smith remembers Fondren searching the Internet during recruitment for videos of teams that had been recruiting her. Fondren had taken official visits to Dayton and Memphis, in addition to Syracuse, and wanted to find a school that matched her style of play.

“The style of play was a real big thing for her,” Smith said. “She was a very intense defender — liked the zone pressure, going the full length of the court.”

Fondren made 31-of-32 starts this season, averaging more than 18 minutes per game.

Although Hillsman oversees the Syracuse process and is in frequent contact with prospects throughout, team assistants are first to initiate contact and become the main point of contact, Sykes and former center Kayla Alexander said.

Alexander is SU’s all-time scoring leader and was drafted eighth overall in the WNBA Draft by the San Antonio Silver Stars on April 15. She points to former assistant coach Matt Luneau as the coach who demonstrated the strongest desire to recruit her of any school.

An Ontario, Canada, native who traveled overseas throughout the end of high school to play with her junior national team, Alexander remembers her teammates taking notice of Luneau’s efforts, and joking about his apparent obsession with her as a player, telling her he was stalking her.

Hillsman also gives Luneau credit for making Alexander an Orange player.

“He’s the reason why she’s here,” Hillsman said. “He really is. He was the first person who really saw her and thought she would be a special player here. He’s the one who really pushed for her early in the process.”

Hillsman said his role comes afterward, when he meets with players individually to explain why he wants them to come to Syracuse.

“After the initial contact, we gauge interest, and we know whether we want to actively recruit the player,” Hillsman said. “At that point, I go in on the back end. I let them know what my vision is for them and how they can come in and impact our program.”

Once Alexander’s junior year of high school hit, she began to whittle down her search — which included Michigan, Michigan State, Seton Hall and Georgetown — to two finalists: Syracuse and Illinois.

Alexander recalls becoming close with former SU players Marisa Gobuty, Vionca Murray and Carniece Greene during her visits, leading to a personal connection with Syracuse that helped eventually break the tie with Illinois.

She also found Hillsman and the staff to be honest and unified during conversations — another plus.

“I ask a million questions,” Alexander said. “I always make sure I have a booklet of questions that I want answered. And one thing I liked: Syracuse was easy to talk to and put everything straight for you. There was no special agenda.”

For Hillsman, the time leading up to on-campus visits is the most important part of recruiting, to ensure prospects are interested enough to make a trip to campus. An assistant at Alabama, American and Siena before arriving at Syracuse, Hillsman has seen the recruiting process evolve during the years.

It used to go “unofficial visit, home visit, official visit,” in that order, for all prospects, but the order now depends on the player, Hillsman said.

Hillsman is confident in his ability to sell the school and program as the “whole package” once recruits get to campus, and emphasizes positive communication pre-visit.

“It’s crazy, and you never know how it’s going to play out,” Hillsman said. “Leading up to them getting on campus is critical. A lot of stuff you do is about getting them to this campus.”

Sykes recalls frequent phone conversations with Hillsman and assistants — some short and some long — during which she would pick their brains to gain a sense of the Syracuse program and its culture.

“I tried to ask questions separately of the coaches to see if they’re on one accord,” Sykes said. “I asked Coach Kelley (Gibson) and Coach (Vonn) Read what do we run and how do we do it, and then you ask the man who’s running the team to see if they match up. It showed that the team’s on one accord and they listen to each other, so it helped a lot.”

Sykes found AAU success during high school with the Philadelphia Belles and was pursued heavily during recruitment, falling in love with Maryland at first, but ending with a list of five finalists: SU, Penn State, Virginia, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Sykes originally committed to Penn State on Oct. 1, 2011, after her official visit. She said she bought into the school’s hype and had to take a step back once she returned home from the campus.

Two weeks later, Sykes de-committed from Penn State and immediately informed the Syracuse staff and traveling to SU for Midnight Madness. She was initially nervous about how the team would treat her, considering her initial commitment to another school, but Sykes said she was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

“I saw all the players and it was kind of shaky at first. Carmen and Lacie were giving me a hard time,” Sykes said. “But after that, Coach Q told me that they understood that I de-committed — that we still love you, we still want you to come here, we feel in our heart that you belong here. He kept it real and lightened the mood by cracking jokes, but to see that out of a coach meant a lot.”

Sykes’ major system concern revolved around the 2-3 zone Syracuse implements most of the time. Sykes thrives on a fast-paced transition game, a key part of the Orange’s philosophy all season. Yet she was hesitant at first when thinking about the constant defensive movement associated with the zone.

She said she expressed these concerns and had an open dialogue with the coaches throughout the process, ultimately concluding that SU’s positives outweighed any zone-related negatives.

Hillsman said he appreciates the willingness of players to express concerns, but maintained a steadfast belief in his system, pointing to the team’s 24-8 record this year.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Hillsman said. “At this point, it’s our system and we’ve been really successful running it and playing that way. If we weren’t this successful, obviously we wouldn’t be doing it. I’m not going to play a style that’s not winning.”

Considering the team is losing three graduating seniors who each surpassed 1,000 points during their careers, Hillsman wanted to find incoming recruits who can be game-ready once they arrive on campus.

As Alexander, Tyson-Thomas and Hall leave, three four-star and one three-star recruit have signed to replace them.

Looking back, Sykes finds the team’s methods throughout the season consistent with the philosophy presented to her during recruitment. She came to Syracuse hoping to press a lot, was told beforehand that she could press and found herself pressing throughout the season.

The team played Sykes’ preferred fast-paced, up-and-down style throughout the year, a style Hillsman said he has found himself recruiting more and more toward as the years go on.

But ultimately, Sykes said her decision to come to Syracuse was based — aside from the school’s well-respected communications program — on the positive vibes she felt when interacting with players and coaches during her visits.

“The connection with players here was huge,” Sykes said. “Every school, I had a host and we hung out, but the relationship with Coach Kelley, Lacie and Carmen, the school in general and Coach Q … it made everything come to fruition.

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