Syracuse University Magazine

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Coach Q's Formula for Success

Syracuse women’s basketball coach Quentin Hillsman was convinced his 2015-16 squad had as much talent as any team in the country. They had balance, depth, and a mental and physical toughness that fueled their will to win. And once they began believing they were a good team and proving it to themselves, they put together the most memorable season in program history. “We started to play together and became really cohesive, making the right reads and the right plays,” he says. “That got us going in the right direction.”

By season’s end, they had arrived at the NCAA title game, a destination where no other SU women’s hoop team had been previously. It was the team’s fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance and its first post season to extend beyond the second round. Although the Orange women fell to a UConn team collecting its fourth straight championship, they had served notice they belonged among the nation’s elite, wreaking havoc with an up-tempo offense triggered by three-point shots and a relentless pressure defense. They posted a 30-8 record, the most wins in program history. They won 11 straight games and 16 of their last 18, losing only in their first-ever ACC tournament final to Notre Dame, and in the national championship. They led the nation in turnover margin (+10.08) and were second in turnovers forced (23.87 average per game). They also ranked third and fourth in the nation, respectively, in three-point field goals attempted and made, and guard Brianna Butler ’16 set an NCAA single-season record for three-pointers (129). “They just stayed the course,” Hillsman says. “They did everything they could do to help us win and be successful. They deserve all the credit. I really mean that. We had many a game where they could have said, ‘You know what, we’re done. It’s over.’ And they never did that. They made plays and found ways to keep making the next play and the next play.”

Now entering his 11th season as head coach, Hillsman has guided the Orange to a 219-116 record, including eight seasons with 20 or more wins. During that time, he says his philosophy has evolved to focus on creating more possessions, forcing turnovers, and maximizing points per possession. He credits associate head coach Vonn Read, whose use of analytics helped them craft their “20-20-20 Rule,” as they call it. They want 20 more possessions than opponents, 20 more shots, and 20-plus forced turnovers every game. “It’s been a formula for success for us,” Hillsman says. “Any time we can get up into those numbers, we’ve been very successful, so that’s our goal.”

It’s a goal that also reflects what Hillsman emphasizes for a competitive advantage: toughness and conditioning. He wants his team to commit to success and competing at the highest level. “We put pressure on ourselves, but it’s a good thing because it makes you work harder, keeps you going on point, and keeps you a competitor,” he says.

That competitive fire is instilled in his squad. He looks for tough players accustomed to winning and regularly lands top 25 recruiting classes. For the upcoming season, he has four starters returning and is focused on what they can accomplish. “I’m just doing what I love—coaching basketball,” Hillsman says. “Any time you can do what you love, you look forward to it. We have a good group of kids coming back and they’re committed to winning. You look forward to seeing how they’ll be now, since they know what it takes to get there; what kind of commitment will they make to get back there—that’s an exciting time.”     —Jay Cox

Photo courtesy of SU Athletic Communications