SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Halfway through his seventh season at Syracuse, women's basketball coach Quentin Hillsman sits in a good place.
His Orange (15-1, 3-0 Big East) are rolling at a high level, ranked 23rd in the national coaches' poll and on the cusp of breaking into the AP Top 25 as they get set to play at third-ranked Connecticut (15-1, 3-1).
"We're to a point where we really expect to win," Hillsman said. "When I came in, people were listening to me talk and thought I was being a little bit ambitious. I knew that the first thing that I had to do was to get players that could play at a high level, play with anybody in the country."
The key to the Orange's fortune this season rests in the hands of senior center Kayla Alexander, one of Hillsman's most important recruits.
"She's a major part of what we've done," Hillsman said. "It's been critical for her to play well for us and to be good. It's tough to put that much pressure on one kid, but it's reality. She has to play well for us to be good."
So far, the 6-foot-4 standout from Milton, Ontario has. Alexander is averaging 19.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks, the latter mark tops in the Big East and fourth nationally, and is just 20 points shy of matching Nicole Michael's career scoring record at Syracuse of 1,787 points.
"Coach Q has brought us to a new level," Alexander said, "with the players he's brought in."
Freshman guards Brittney Sykes, Cornelia Fondren and Brianna Butler have been in the starting lineup the entire season and have combined to contribute 19 points and just more than 10 rebounds per game. Reserves Taylor Ford and Pachis Roberts, a Parade All-American at Powder Springs, Ga., are the other pieces that have contributed.
"We have an incredible freshman class," Alexander said. "From the beginning, they've contributed."
So, too, have seniors Carmen Tyson-Thomas (10.7 points), Elashier Hall (10.1 points) and junior Rachel Coffey (5.0 assists), giving Syracuse a good dose of experience.
Picked to finish seventh in the conference, Syracuse posted a 12-1 record in nonconference play, the only blemish a surprising 74-67 loss at Temple in early December in which the Orange squandered a 39-25 halftime lead. That ties for the second-best start in program history (the 2009-10 team started 13-0) and has moved the Orange to 26th in this week's AP poll.
"Our team is great in my eyes," said Sykes, a McDonald's All-American from Newark, N.J., who copped Big East rookie of the week honors twice in the past month. "Everybody can see the hard work paying off, our nights in the gym. All those things are what makes a great team, but to all have a common goal makes it even better as a unit.
"We are a team that is good and becoming great."
Syracuse, headed to the ACC next year, is coming off a win at Marquette as well as consecutive home triumphs over Georgetown and DePaul. The 86-56 victory over the Hoyas was rather eye-opening, and stopped a seven-game skid in the series.
"Looking up our history, this is our second time being 15-1, and I want to make it 16-1 and make a new record," Sykes said. "Going to play UConn, there's no easy games in the Big East. Having those type-caliber teams back to back to back, it sure gets you battle tested."
UConn and Notre Dame have been the signature programs of the Big East. Syracuse would like to be in the mix, too, in this, its last year in the league.
With their pressure defense, the Orange lead the Big East and rank fourth nationally in steals per game at 13.8, turning opponents over an average of 23 times. They are limiting opponents to 26.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers, also tops in the conference.
The high-scoring Huskies, whose lone loss was a one-point setback at home two weeks ago to No. 2 Notre Dame, have beaten Syracuse 21 straight times and lead the nation in five categories, including scoring (83.8) and points allowed (46.6).
Playing well in a hostile environment against UConn is the goal.
"It's going to be important," Sykes said. "The caliber that they bring to the court, we have to bring. It's going to be a great matchup. We have to play our game 100 percent.
"Our main goal is to win, but at the same time, our ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament, winning big games and not backing down from anybody."