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Fourth-seeded Syracuse seeks first Sweet 16 run

There's a new orange in town.

Syracuse might not have the pedigree of Tennessee or Texas, but in putting together the most successful season in school history, the Orange made themselves a contender as a No. 4 seed in the Sioux Falls Region.

Syracuse (25-7) meets 13th-seeded Army (29-2) on Friday (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m.); the winner meets either No. 5 seed Florida or 12th-seeded Albany in Sunday's second-round game.

It's the first time in program history that the Orange are hosts of the early rounds, testament to a late-season run in which Syracuse won 11 consecutive games before losing in the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame, a No. 1 seed in the Lexington Region.

"If we play hard, no one can beat us," said guard Cornelia Fondren, one of six Syracuse seniors. "If we compete at a high level, we'll win."

If you've never seen the Orange in person, here's what you have to look forward to. Like aggressive defense? Syracuse leads the nation in turnovers forced. The chaos the Orange create with their slaphappy shenanigans, while far from pretty, can make the most deliberate offense ineffective. That's something their ACC opponents found out firsthand. The Orange throttled Duke by 35; the Blue Devils committed 32 turnovers. Syracuse defeated Florida State by 10, forcing 28 turnovers. The Orange upset nationally ranked Miami on the road (26 turnovers), and Louisville gave it away 16 times leading to 21 points in the ACC semifinals.

They're also thieves, ranking third in the nation in steals. And when foes manage to escape the pressure, 6-foot-4 Briana Day looms. The junior center, an All-ACC defensive team pick, ranked second in the conference in blocks.

"We try to make it as chaotic as possible out there," said Quentin Hillsman, in his 10th season coaching the Orange. "We work to make opponents uncomfortable every time they bring the ball up the floor."

The thinking is to create a turnover off a press that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw calls one of the best she has seen and shoot the 3 before the opponent can get back on defense. Nobody shoots the long ball more than 5-11 senior Brianna Butler, the national leader in 3-pointers made with 355, which ranks 16th in Division I history.

Prior to the season, Hillsman predicted Butler would bury better than 100 treys; thus far it's 111. Five came in the ACC tournament quarterfinal win over NC State.

"She catches and shoots with the best in the country," he said.

Those surrounding the program point to Hillsman and his ability to elevate players beyond the limits they set for themselves as reason one for success. Since taking over a program in 2006 that finished 28-55 in the three years before his arrival, "Coach Q" has failed to surpass the 20-win mark just twice.

In each of the last seven seasons, the Orange have won 22 or more games. Syracuse has been to the postseason nine straight years, reaching the NCAA tournament the last four. The Orange have advanced to the second round twice, including last season, when as a No. 8 seed they fell to South Carolina, which reached the Final Four.

The animated Hillsman rarely sits during games; sometimes he's airborne.

"He jumps," laughed his wife, Shandrist, a regular behind the bench holding 10-month-old son, Harlem, while trying to rein in his 5-year-old brother, Kyan.

Hillsman's level of enthusiasm drives him to often forgo a good night's sleep as he searches for new ways and better plays to give the Orange an edge against opponents. "I'm afraid to lose," he admits, and three hours of sleep is a luxury during the season.

"He's a character, but honestly, you want that in a coach," redshirt junior Brittney Sykes said. "He believes in us so much, it just trickles down. When he gets excited and jumps up and down, it get us going."

"We try to make it as chaotic as possible out there. We work to make opponents uncomfortable every time they bring the ball up the floor." Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman

Hillsman said he benefitted from his days coaching in the Big East alongside legends such as McGraw and UConn's Geno Auriemma , though he lists Rick Moody as perhaps his biggest mentor. Hillsman was an assistant to Moody at Alabama, and Moody joined Syracuse in the same capacity in 2007 before retiring.

"He taught me how to run a program," Hillsman said. "He was a remarkable communicator. When you come to work every day and you feel like you're coming to a hobby because it's so much fun, it makes you want to work hard every day. That's what I've tried to do here."

His Madison Avenue style is a regular topic among the team, as are his weighty glasses, and he owns several pairs. The striking wardrobe comprised of a range of colorful vests and ties doesn't come from Shandrist. "He dresses me," she said. "He has the best eye for fashion in our house."

Hillsman is quick to give credit to his players and staff -- associate head coach Vonn Read and former Virginia star Tammi Reiss among them. Known as a master recruiter, he chronicles this year's success back to Juanita Ward and Erica Morrow, the first McDonald's All-Americans to sign with the program.

"Get players like that on your roster, your team gets better and other good players want to play for you," he said.

This crop of upperclassmen, ranked sixth in the country as freshmen, included McDonald's All-Americans in Butler and Sykes. All-ACC first team point guard Alexis Peterson followed; she ranks second in the league in assists per game behind the Irish's Lindsay Allen. Peterson scored at least 18 points in each of the three ACC tournament games.

"I thought Peterson set the tempo right off the bat," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said after the championship. "She pushed the ball right down our throats, attacked us. She got to the rim. She is a big-time point guard."

Chemistry distinguishes good teams from great ones, and Syracuse benefits from players accepting their roles, Hillsman said. He brought in Fondren as the starting point guard but she has evolved into a utility role, starting just one game this season. A caveat: Starting is no big deal in this program, anyway. During the regular season, the team refrained from player introductions given Hillsman's tendency to use an eight- to nine-player rotation.

Still, the word Hillsman repeats in describing his Orange is toughness, and he points to Sykes as the best evidence of that. Named to the 2012-13 All-Big East Freshman Team, the 5-9 guard led the team in scoring the following year. Then two ACL tears to her right knee in a 10-month span derailed her path.

"I was distraught after the second one happened so fast," she said. "It's really hard to explain the pain and the toll, not just the physical one but mentally. It could have been a heart breaker. Instead I made it a character builder."

Syracuse is still building its fan base, and while the chance to host games in the Carrier Dome is a bonus, large numbers of fans have yet to embrace the Orange. While Dome Sweet Dome regularly welcomes crowds in excess of 30,000 for men's basketball, the women rank third from the bottom in the ACC for attendance at 752.

An increased marketing effort will ideally entice plenty in orange to be present for what could shape up to be the first run to the Sweet 16 in program history.

"Just hearing Syracuse is hosting will mean a lot," Fondren said. "I think people will come out for this."