The UConn Huskies and Syracuse Orange will be rekindling an old Big East rivalry when they meet Tuesday evening in this year's women's basketball national championship. We had a chance to throw some questions at Sean Keeley, manager of the Syracuse SB Nation site Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, so we can better get to know the Huskies' opponent.
You can read our answers to their questions here.
1) Soo I remember being in a conference with you guys and the women's hoops team was not that good. How did this happen? What has been the most surprising part of this particular tournament run?
Quentin Hillsman happened. Syracuse's women's basketball program was indeed a pretty stark wasteland, seemingly destined to be an afterthought. But over the last decade, Hillsman has slowly but surely transformed it with smart recruiting, key victories and post-season success. It wasn't long ago that an NCAA Tournament berth was a dream. Now it's a given.
This run has certainly been surprising but Syracuse has also been trending in this direction for a long time. We just got here a lot quicker than we thought we would.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the whole run is the way Syracuse morphed from being a team that kinda-sorta had a chance into a throat-stepper. They dominated their early-round games, were able to take it to South Carolina late and pretty much controlled the tempo against Tennessee and Washington. It's been nice to see an SU women's basketball team look dominant.
2) Geno Auriemma revealed that Breanna Stewart probably would have gone to Syracuse if she was a guy and that she's still a huge fan of the school. Do you think Syracuse's success means the next time a once-in-a-generation female hoops talent grows up in the area that she might go Orange?
I hope so but I think even Orange fans will agree that if UConn wants you, that's a hard offer to turn down. Certainly, Syracuse is in a much better position today than it was four years ago and would probably be able to make a stronger case for someone like Stewart to stay put. But until I actually see it happen, I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, I think it's paramount for Hillsman and his staff to keep bringing in quality four-star talent to maintain the status quo and keep Syracuse in this discussion for the next few years. You don't want this to be a one-year wonder.
3) Pretty weak of Syracuse not to accommodate a "homecoming" game for Breanna Stewart in her senior year. I noticed that Syracuse fans, the ones on your site at least, were pretty split on the issue. Has that sentiment changed at all and will they regret that when a slighted Stewie drops 40 tonight?
The sense I've gotten is that people have dug in their heels on whichever side of the fence they were on. Those who thought Syracuse should have taken the paycheck and done the hometown girl a solid still think so. Those who thought Syracuse didn't owe Stewart anything believe it even more firmly now.
I was personally on the side of scheduling UConn and I still think Syracuse should have done it. Hell, it might have paid off with some advanced scouting for Tuesday. But even UConn had won that game by 50, Syracuse needs to create excitement around it's women's basketball program and that would have done it.
You can say that now that SU is at this level, we don't need to look to scheduling a UConn or South Carolina to goose ticket sales or build up interest, but ultimately if you think UConn's dominance is good for the sport, as Coach Q has said, then you have to be interested when they ask for a one-off game in your stadium.
4) It seems as though this Syracuse team likes to run and shoot. What would you say are the Orange's biggest strengths?
Oh boy do we like to shoot. Brianna Butler shoots more three-pointers than just about anyone and she makes a decent amount of them. But the offense runs primarily through two people, point guard Alexis Peterson and guard Brittney Sykes. The two juniors have been pretty consistent throughout the tournament and provide a solid scoring base from which everyone else can add.
There's a lot of veteran leadership on the squad, though most of it is found in strange places. Seniors Maggie Morrison and Cornelia Fondren both come off the bench and can provide solid sparks. It's a testament to the quality of recent recruiting classes that neither of them are starters as they'd be well qualified.
5) What about weaknesses?
Did I mention we like to shoot? Like I said, Butler likes to shoot and she has the green light to just keep doing so all game. That means if she's cold, so are the Orange from three-point range. The Orange are going to have to rely on big point opportunities to have a chance on Tuesday so if Butler doesn't have one of the best games of the season, that could do it.
There's also a concern that if either Peterson or Sykes are shut down, that could really stymie the rest of the offense and the dominoes could fall quickly.
6) At some schools, women's sports seems like an afterthought while others have embraced and promoted them.
Where do you feel like Syracuse stands on that spectrum and what responsibility do you think major D1 schools have to do a better job driving legitimacy for women's sports?
Recently-deposed athletic director Daryl Gross gets a lot of flack for the Syracuse football program and other decisions he's made but you cannot deny that Syracuse women's sports are worlds better because of his tenure.
When Gross arrived, the only women's program you could probably point to as having success would be the field hockey team. Now, the women's basketball program joins women's lacrosse and field hockey as teams that recently made Final Fours or won championships. Ice hockey, volleyball and track & field are also doing really well. Across the board women's programs are as good as they've ever been at SU and it's a great sign for the health of the athletics program in general.
Ultimately if Syracuse wants to see women's programs succeed long term, they have to make sure they balance their investments. You pump millions into the football program, but make sure the women's programs can benefit in some way as well. Jim Boeheim and Quentin Hillsman have talked about how The Melo Center is for both basketball teams, not just the men. The more we invest in their success, the better our women's programs will be for it.
Thanks to Sean for the insight and best of luck tonight. May the best team win!