Mettus: Syracuse needs to continue momentum from NCAA tournament run
Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer
INDIANAPOLIS — The meeting of Syracuse and Connecticut in the national championship game was a collision of two teams that are worlds apart.
Connecticut, one of college sports’ greatest dynasties, won its fourth national championship in a row and has gone undefeated in 11 title game appearances. A team so good that critics label it as bad for the game.
The other, Syracuse, was an upstart. An NCAA tournament newbie that had never hosted a tournament game, never made it past the second round and never even had the chance to think about cutting down nets until this year.
The Huskies did what it has done to every team in recent memory and trounced SU, winning 82-51. But the score didn’t much matter. What mattered is that Syracuse was there.
In 10 years, Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman has a taken a down-in-the-dumps program to the national title game. With this year’s improbable tournament run, he put Syracuse women’s basketball on the map. From here, anything is possible. Syracuse could continue to rise into the women’s college basketball elite or fall back down to the middle of the pack squad it had been, struggling to find signature wins over ranked teams.
“I want to do that. I want to be bad for basketball one day,” Hillsman said. “I want to be really bad for basketball. I want you all to say ‘He’s really bad for basketball.’ Because I tell you right now, if winning every game is bad for basketball, then let me be that, please.”
Army head coach Dave Magarity cut himself short of saying Syracuse was “legitimately” a Top 10 team after the Black Knights’ blowout loss to the Orange in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, amending it to “could be.”
Was the Orange on the same level as No. 1 seeds Connecticut, Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina? “Maybe not in those four … but that second wave.”
That was before Syracuse made it into the Sweet 16 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Before the Orange took down a powerhouse in South Carolina and one of the most historic programs in Tennessee.
That was before Syracuse manhandled Washington on its way to the national championship game. Before the program’s profile rose as high as it is now.
Syracuse’s nine-game win streak to end the regular season and appearance in the ACC title game was a surprise. Its run through the NCAA tournament was even more improbable.
In the season-ending coaches poll on Wednesday, Syracuse improved more than any other team going from No. 12, where Magarity had SU, to No. 3 — ahead of Baylor, South Carolina, Notre Dame and teams Magarity said SU did not belong with.
“It’s only the beginning,” guard Brittney Sykes said. “We’ve been building these four years, and you want to get to this level and you want to get back here. So we’re just going to keep building … We’re going to get back to the national championship game and try to win it again.”
The senior class that was ranked the No. 6 recruiting class in the nation is now leaving, except for Sykes, who has the ability to return because of her medical redshirt year.
This year’s success, though, opens up new recruiting avenues. Syracuse had recruits in Indianapolis for the Final Four, guard Cornelia Fondren said. You can tell a potential player that you’re a national contender and she can win a championship with you.
Five years ago, North Syracuse native Breanna Stewart, the then-No. 1-ranked recruit in the country, could have picked SU, a program ingrained in her childhood but that had never won an NCAA tournament game and where a national championship seemed like the pipe dream of an over ambitious head coach.
Then there was UConn, with prestige and national titles to spare. Stewart wanted to be the best and Syracuse wasn’t the place for that.
“We’re going to get her,” Hillsman said of the next player like Stewart to come out of the area. “Next one comes, we’re getting her. … We won’t lose another one. Don’t worry about that.”
A bold statement supported by UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. He said he’s glad Syracuse’s current meteoric rise didn’t happen five years ago. A player like Stewart, who is the first to earn the Final Four’s most outstanding player four years in a row, can be program-changing.
Instead of just going after the most talented players, the team can find ones that fit into SU’s scheme of full court pressure defense and a barrage of 3s. It’s easier for players to buy in now that there’s proof that it works.
Getting to the national championship game once was the easy part. The harder task is not becoming a one-and-done that Hillsman talks to his own players so much about.
“It’s what you do after you get home,” Auriemma said. “What happens next year, the year after, the year after and the year after. Is this a one-time deal, or is this the beginning of something that’s going to last a long time at Syracuse? And really nobody has the answer to that, but certainly they’ve put themselves in a position where anything’s possible now.”
Jon Mettus is the Digital Editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jmettus.
Published on April 7, 2016 at 12:37 am