The upcoming college women's basketball season is set to begin on Nov. 25. It will be an important one for Syracuse, as the team returns four starters, along with one of the best-recruiting classes in program history. Oh, and did I mention the return of Tiana Mangakhia? Simply, one of the best players in the country before being diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2019. Mangakahia will be coupled with a solid roster, full of familiar and unfamiliar faces. We take a look at the most critical players for Syracuse basketball in 2020-21, in no particular order.
Emily Engstler is the x-factor on a team full of quick guards. At six-foot-one, Engstler has the unique ability to lead the team in rebounds on any given night and also push the ball up the court as soon as she rips down a rebound. A positive sign for the former five-star athlete is that she is getting better every year, in every aspect of the game. From averaging 5 points per game along with 5 rebounds her freshman season, she nearly doubled those figures averaging 9 and 9 her sophomore year. She also led her team in blocks with 50, a stat not many guards around the country can claim. Engstler has even made strides in the mental part of the game, as she struggled with controlling her emotions during freshman season. Now, having matured massively going into her junior year, expect Engstler to assert herself right away as a pivotal part of the team and as a leader.
The one player who can impact the game more than any other for the Orange, and not just by virtue of her position, is point guard Tiana Mangakahia. It all starts with Mangakahia's ability to make plays for herself and her teammates as a pass-first point guard. She pushes the ball down the court on fastbreaks, uses high screens to penetrate into the paint, and makes smart basketball plays to either get an open look for a finish at the rim or find her teammates. She always seems to be one step too quick for the defense. Before Mangakahia was put through the ultimate test of life of fighting breast cancer, she was on her way to becoming one of the greatest players to ever put on orange. She is still on that track, and a deep tournament run in March will put her in a category all by herself.
While Mangakahia was away from the game last season dealing with the unfortunate circumstances of life, Kiara Lewis was inserted into the lineup to take the role of a point guard. Lewis excelled, averaging nearly 18 points per game along with five assists, quickly becoming one of the best players in the nation in just her first experience as a starter for Syracuse. Whether or not Lewis gets a starting role in the upcoming season, she has already proven her talent. Her ability to score is aided by her mentality as a score-first guard, who likes driving downhill coming off screens, something coach Quintin Hillsman can take advantage of by having both Lewis and Mangakahia in the line-up at the same time.
Unfortunately, we will not get to see the ladies in Orange go to battle until they play in a real game, as scrimmages are prohibited per new NCAA regulations. In the ACC, three teams are ranked ahead of Syracuse in pre-season rankings, including NC State, Lousiville, and Notre Dame. The exciting (and maybe not so exciting for some) part about this year's Syracuse team is expectations are all over the place. Although the team is returning starters, we do not know how quickly Mangakahia will be in full form. Once she is, and the players around her are efficient from three, out-rebounding opponents, and playing good team defense, the team can make a run at the national title.
The schedule for the 2020-21 season is still up in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic. The team will begin practice this Wednesday, Oct. 14.
Honorable mention: Maud Huijbens. A six-foot-five freshman from the Netherlands, can provide a much-needed presence in the paint on the defensive end, is able to play with her back-to-the-basket in the low post, and can finish around the rim in traffic.