Penn State Basketball

Walt Moody: Sparse recruiting classes contribute to Penn Stateâ™s rough womenâ™s basketball season

The question has come often as the snow this winter.

“What is wrong with the Penn State women's basketball team?”

It's a legitimate question.

Entering Sunday's 2 p.m. start at Purdue, Penn State is 5-18 overall and dead last in the Big Ten with a 2-10 conference record.

It's a far cry from three consecutive Big Ten regular-season titles, four consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and a Sweet 16 appearance last season.

Barring something miraculous in the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State will finish with the worst season in program history.

How did it get so bad this season?

A lot of it has to do with some of that success.

Coquese Washington was able to revive the program thanks to a pair of outstanding recruiting classes. First came a 2009 class that was headlined by Alex Bentley and Nikki Greene — both now in the WNBA — that became the foundation for success. Marisa Wolfe and Gizelle Studevent were also part of that class.

And that fall, Washington landed Boston College transfer Mia Nickson, who after sitting out a season would have three more years in the program.

The following class would feature Maggie Lucas, who would go on to become the second-leading scorer in program history and a WNBA player, Ariel Edwards, a future Big Ten first team selection, and Talia East. All were eventually starters.

Washington also would net another stellar transfer in Dara Taylor, who would start two seasons in the program and become the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season.

The success and sheer number of those classes forced Washington to be a little more picky with her future classes and to that extent is where this year's problems began.

Tori Waldner was the only member of the Class of 2011. Candice Agee was the only freshman in the Class of 2012.

Even this season's recruiting class was limited to two transfers — Sierra Moore and Dominque Brooks — and Lindsey Spann dropping to a redshirt freshman after injuring her knee.

No, these weren't the only players that Penn State recruited during that time period. The Lady Lions were among the finalists for several of the nation's top players, but came up short. Most notably among those players was Breanna Stewart, who has won a pair of national titles in her first two seasons at Connecticut. Current UConn freshman Kia Nurse was another one that got away.

Penn State took a swing like Mighty Casey at some of the nation's best players, but struck out.

And in a league like the Big Ten, you can't do that and survive.

“It just kind of fell that way for us,” Washington said of those two small recruiting classes. “It's not our ideal. We'd like to have more balanced classes. Recruiting is not a science. Sometimes you end end up with a small class. That's just the way it is.”

And the effects resonate farther that one season.

Penn State did bring in five freshmen last fall, but most weren't ready to play at the elite level and they were behind players like Lucas, Edwards, Taylor and East.

Kaliyah Mitchell and Peyton Whitted were the players that saw the most action from that class, but even that was limited. A year ahead of them, Agee was hampered by a bum knee.

So coming into this season, only Waldner had extensive playing time and her role her first three seasons was to grab rebounds and block shots.

And when Mitchell and Whitted struggled initially and only Spann delivering consistent offense, Penn State was is trouble.

Early season losses to the likes of Albany, St. Bonaventure, Liberty and Samford --- teams that Penn State would usually bury in that past --- made that very evident.

“I think it's a different challenge and where you see it more is when those classes become upper classes like we're seeing this year,” Washington said in early January. “You don't have quite as many veterans who can be examples and show the way. When you have a big class like four or five and you have that continuity that makes for easier transitions and easier growth patterns.”

And once the Big Ten season got here, the transition problems remained pronounced, from Xs and Os to every facet of play. The culmination of embarrassment came in a 38-turnover loss to Rutgers, which has to be an unofficial school record (those stats are kept).

“It's a little bit of everything,” Washington explained in early January. “It's experience, confidence in making certain plays, reading things, the speed in which you recognize things, not being able to take advantage of opportunities. I don't think there's one thing. It's a little bit of everything.

“We don't quite have that experience out there turning things around quickly.”

Penn State has played better (especially Mitchell and Whitted) lately, but a continuing problem of long offensive droughts has brought few wins.

Throw in two changes on her coaching staff and Washington has gone through a lot of change since her club walked off the court last March at Stanford.

Washington has proven she can turn around a program. and the good news on the recruiting front is that Penn State has four highly rated freshmen coming in next fall.

The class is ranked among the nation's top 10, but how soon will one or two emerge to make an impact?

Penn State does have UConn transfer Brianna Banks for one season next fall. Banks, who was part of a pair of NCAA Championship teams, has looked impressive in practice.

The Class of 2016 also had a good start with the commitment of wing Jaida Green, whose shooting ability and range impressed when she took a recent campus visit.

Washington needs to hit a home run with each of her classes if the Lady Lions are to contend for another Big Ten crown.

With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this season, winning the title has gotten significantly more difficult.

Penn State vs. Purdue

The Boilermakers, another perennial Big Ten power, are also suffering this season. They are 10-12 overall and 3-8 in the league.

Purdue is coming off a 72-55 drubbing against in-state rival Indiana, something that's rarely happened in that series. The Boilermakers have dropped seven of eight, the worst program stretch since the 1993 season.

Whitney Bays leads Purdue with 15.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Notes: This will be the first time since the 2011 season that both Penn State and Purdue are unranked when facing each other. ... Purdue leads the all-time series against Penn State 27-18. ... The Boilermakers are 14-6 at home against the Lady Lions. ... Penn State and Purdue split a pair of games last season with each winning on the road. ... Spann needs 10 points to tie Kahadeejah Herbert for 10th on the school’s freshman scoring list. She is 19 from tying Lis Shepherd for ninth.