Basketball success flows not just with the SU men this season. The Orange women are 13-1, have already achieved a national ranking and are eschewing individual accolades in favor of victories.
After racing to the program’s best start in over 30 years against a grab bag of non-conference opponents, SU is two games into the true test of success: Big East Conference play. Queen Connecticut, Princess Notre Dame (ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively) and a roundtable full of basketball knights dot Syracuse’s trek to a third straight postseason bid.
As road gets bumpier and the battles more fierce, an Orange identity question remains. Is it an army led by a pair of four-star generals (three-time All-Big East swing Nicole Michael and guard Erica Morrow) with talented lieutenants (power guard Juanita Ward and savvy point Tasha Harris)? Is it a strength-in-numbers approach with mass substitutions and a short leash by the coaching staff? Is the Orange best when running-and-gunning up the floor? Is suffocating defense the Syracuse sword in the stone?
Halftime Snack looks at what’s working for Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman and his 2009-10 Orange riders:
Give up thy self. In his words, Hillsman wants basketball simplicity and, in turn, the action of the team is proving the theory. The SU women are subbed into the game in droves and play in survival mode. The list of unselfish traits: active defensively (seven players have over 10 steals this season) and forced turnovers, tenacious rebounding (SU gets 14.3 more rebounds than opponents, ranking second in country as of Jan. 3), running for the easy baskets, diving for loose balls, and then galloping to the bench for high-fives from everyone, all the way down to the equipment guy.
More is better. Hillsman wears out the substitution horn: 10 players average over 13-plus minutes per game. On more than one occasion, Hillsman pulled the starters in the first couple minutes of the game. Message sent, motivation enhanced. The Orange players are hungry to get in the game and stay in the game. Come on, didn’t you know that competition will breed success?
Get the tough rebound. In the conference opener Jan. 2, the Orange women rallied from 10 points down to force overtime against Georgetown before the Hoyas (off to their best start since 1979-80) squeaked out the 83-81 victory. The kids were a little upset with our last game when we lost in front of our home crowd,” Hillsman told SUathletics.com. The Orange missed that shot (insult to injury: Hoyas took over Cuse’s spot in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25), and grabbed the carom: Cuse blew out Seton Hall on the road, 79-38, three days later. The 41-point margin of victory was the largest for SU in its Big East tenure. Knocked down? Get back up.
Versatility in spades. Michael, a pre-season Wooden National Player of the Year candidate, has seen her minutes dwindle (26.8 per game last season to 23.9 in 2009-10) but is posting similar numbers (14.3 points, 8.1 rebounds per game with 21 steals). Sometimes asked to step outside as a guard, the 6-foot, 2-inch Michael (right) has dramatically improved her 3-point shooting. A career 31 percent maker from beyond the arc, she is hitting on nearly 44 percent of her deep shots this season (already sinking a career-high 32 triples). The next Ms. Versatile Orange is already in uniform: Tyler Ash, a sophomore forward, played at both the shooting guard and the point guard versus Dartmouth. Defensively, she got her hands on a pair of passes at the top of the zone, leading to easy SU layups.
Share the wealth. Hillsman has been on campus long enough to know the SU men’s formula for continued success: a 2-3 zone defense. Hillsman has implemented the same defense, yet demands more of his women than his better known counterpart does of the gentlemen. The SU women always have hands up and in the passing lanes, the center at the back of the zone never stops talking and the defense is often extended with the goal of increasing a lead (the men extend pressure only when trailing on the scoreboard). Full- or three-quarter court pressure at different intervals in the game have been effective at keeping the opposition out of a rhythm (not to mention generating those easy lay-ups).
Defense is the best offense. If a player isn't playing defense, she's not playing at all. Thru Jan. 3, the Orange ranked second in Division I in field goal percentage defense (their opponents shot just 31.5%), third in fewest fouls committed (12.8 per game) and 14th in scoring defense (Cuse allowed just 52.7 points per game). Simplicity: can’t win if you can’t score.
The last one is the most stable leg for Hillsman and the Orange women to stand on. Good defense leads to easy offense. Control what you can control.
After tasting what the Ivy League has to offer (Brown comes to the Dome on Jan. 10) the next Big East opponent for Syracuse is Rutgers, notorious for its physicality and swollen pride. Not an easy fight with just one sword.
Photo by Mitchell Franz, TheNewshouse.com