Ask coach Coquese Washington whether being ranked the No. 8 team in the country in two major polls means much to the Penn State women’s basketball program and you’ll get a couple of answers.
“Yes and no,” she responded during a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s nice. It means a lot for the program and shows where the program is and how we’re viewed by our peers, the coaches and the press. That is valid and valuable.
“But in terms of how (the players) approach practice, there’s no difference now than was in August. There’s no difference now than it was in the spring when we were doing individual workouts. That doesn’t motivate them. That doesn’t put pressure on them. That doesn’t do anything. This team, led by this senior class, they’re focused on March. They’re focused on ‘lets do what we’ve got to do to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.
“Whatever comes now, that’s cool. We’ll take it, but we aren’t concerned about what’s going on now. We want to be playing our best basketball in March and see how good we can be there.”
The Lady Lions, the reigning Big Ten regular-season champions, made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament last March, falling to perennial power Connecticut to end a 26-7 season. They're ranked eighth in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches polls, their highest preseason rankings in nine years.
This season got off to an early start, with 10 practices and three preseason games in Europe in August. Now the season gets rolling earnest with an exhibition at 2 p.m. Saturday against California, Pa., at the Bryce Jordan Center and the regular season tipping off at 2 p.m. Nov. 11 at home against Howard.
Washington, who missed the team’s annual Media Day in early October with a family emergency, said the team is rounding into form.
“It looks like October, but I like the effort,” she said. “We’re working hard and getting better. I’m pretty pleased with where things are right now.”
Washington said Saturday’s game against Cal, coached by former Penn State standout Jess Strom, gives her a chance to help finalize the team’s starting lineup. The Lady Lions return four starters --- guards Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas, forward Mia Nickson and senior Nikki Greene. Guard/forward Ariel Edwards also saw significant starting time last season because of injuries.
“That’s what the next 10 days is going to determine, especially Saturday,” Washington said of the starting lineup. “I kind of have an idea who we are going to start on Saturday. We’ll play a lot of rotations and combinations to see what we’re going to do moving forward from there.”
What Washington wants Saturday is consistency. “I’d like to see us develop some continuity on both ends of the floor,” she said. “... We play well in spurts.”
Lucas on point
Even though she has two point guards in Big Ten preseason co-player of the year Bentley and transfer Dara Taylor, Washington said shooting guard Maggie Lucas will continue to see some time at the point, like the Lady Lions’ leading scorer has done in her first two seasons.
“One of the reasons we’ll play (Maggie) at the point, regardless of Alex and Dara, is just to get the ball in her hands,” Washington said. “That’s another thing teams have to prepare for. ... The way I look at it, we have three point guards and we’ll use all three of them at different times within the game.”
Marisa Wolfe is still out of full contact drills in practice because of the lingering effects from a concussion last season.
“She’s day-to-day,” Washington said of the senior forward. “You just don’t know with those concussion symptoms. Different things can trigger them. We’re just take it day-to-day with her and when she’s ready she’ll return.”
Washington said Wolfe is handling the situation well.
“She’s one of our captains. She’s extremely positive. She’s very engaged with the team even though she can’t do the contact stuff.”
While searching for something at her home recently, Washington said she ran across some old clippings from four years ago in which she was quote about her incoming freshman class of Bentley, Greene, Wolfe and Gizelle Studevent. Those four were joined by Nickson, who transferred from Boston College.
“It was so funny for me to read what my thoughts on my class were back then,” Washington said. “Some of the things that I said at that time is that was I thought they would be a big impact. I thought they would come in and elevate our program. I thought they would come in and have an impact from Day 1 and that has certainly been the case.”
After four consecutive losing seasons, Penn State has gone 17-14, 25-10 and 26-7 since the class arrived.
“This senior class had been kind of a lightning rod for our success,” Washington said. “I’m so appreciative for this class because they all had opportunities to go other programs that were certainly at a better place. ... They took a chance on Penn State and took a chance on a first-year head coach.”
Washington will be with the Lady Lions through the 2017 season, thanks to a five-year contract extension she signed in September. The extension and compensation package approaches $3.5 million.
“It’s good to know we’re going to be around for another five years,” Washington said. “We get to continue the work that we started. We want to continue to build and make Penn State women’s basketball the best in the country. We’re not there yet and we’ve got more work to do. We’ve got a few more years to continue to grow the program and that’s exciting. I love being at Penn State.”
Candice Agee is the lone freshman on this year’s squad and Washington expects the 6-foot-6 center to make an impact.
“Candice is fitting in great,” Washington said. “She’s a freshman. Don’t get me wrong, the game is fast and she’s not in great shape. She’s got to learn the offense, but she’s picking up things really well. She’s just a presence. A lot of her mistakes end up being OK plays just because she’s pretty talented. She’s got a knack for making good plays. As she gets used to the speed of the game and the strength of the game, I think she’s going to have a really strong impact for us.”