Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman has not watched the tape of last season’s NCAA championship game against Connecticut. That’s not uncommon, since Hillsman hardly ever watches film of games that the Orange lost.
Besides, it’s not like he needs a reminder of that one anyway.
Going to the national title game last season – as a No. 4 seed, a relatively uncommon occurrence in women’s basketball – didn’t make Hillsman change his expectations. From the very beginning of his collegiate coaching life as an assistant at Siena nearly two decades ago, Hillsman has always put lofty demands on himself.
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He’ll do the same this weekend when Syracuse starts another NCAA quest – in Storrs, Connecticut, with a title-game rematch against No. 1 UConn looming as a second-round possibility. The eighth-seeded Orange open on Saturday against No. 9 Iowa State, while the Huskies begin with 16th-seeded Albany.
”Anything can happen, and we know that, and we’re just ready to go out and compete,” Hillsman said after Syracuse fell earlier this month in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. ”That’s why we do it. We’re in the best conference in the country, and it really prepares you for anything you’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament.”
Hillsman isn’t the least bit worried about the Orange looking ahead to a potential rematch.
”Play the Iowa State tape,” he said. ”I think that’ll keep us focused.”
The Orange (21-10) struggled at times this season, but there are reasons for optimism heading into this NCAA run. Syracuse’s offense is improved over a year ago, though the defensive numbers aren’t quite as airtight as last season – or as Hillsman would like. Then again, hardly anyone would have picked the Orange to be a title contender at the start of the 2016 tournament, either.
”We’ve always talked about winning championships at our place,” Hillsman said. ”We’ve always talked about winning at a high level. We’re in the ACC. If it’s not your goal to go undefeated and win the national championship, you shouldn’t be doing it. Last season made me realize you don’t want to go backwards. You want to stay at a level. So we try to push forward.”
Ask the people who know Hillsman best, even some of his rivals in the ACC, about his best traits and the answers are all about the same. He’s dapper. He’s meticulous. He’s intense when needed. His players respond to him.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t rave about Hillsman.
”What I loved about Q in the beginning and even now is that he’s just really good with people,” said Gina Castelli, the women’s coach at Division II Le Moyne in Syracuse. ”He’s very personable. He forms really good relationships. He’s held true to that. Just a really good guy, always looks out for you and is so well-liked by a lot of people. And then he’s a very good coach as well.”
Castelli gave Hillsman his first big break, when she leaned across a table at an Albany bar and decided he was the right fit to be her No. 3 assistant at Siena. Now he’s a rock star, someone whom Castelli’s players get excited to see when he ventures out to a Le Moyne game and watches his mentor’s team.
”I’m thrilled for him,” Castelli said. ”Really, really happy. He’s a star in this area now. It’s wonderful. Looking back now, I’m not surprised he’s become so successful. He had all the traits.”
Hillsman wanted no part of UConn talk this week. Never one to look ahead, his focus as soon as the brackets were unveiled on Monday night was on Iowa State, which is understandable.
He knows the Cyclones will get fired up to play against a team that went to the title game last season. He knows that’s been the case for Syracuse opponents all season, something he wears as a badge of honor.
”The better you get, the harder teams play against you,” Hillsman said. ”You’re at a standard and I think it’s been hard for our players sometimes to understand that’s the standard. But here we are.”