Penn State coach Coquese Washington freely admits there’s a large distance between the top teams in women’s basketball and the ones who are chasing them.
But, she asserts that doesn’t mean the sport is not healthy.
“It’s maybe two or three teams that are having really good seasons,” said Washington during her weekly news conference Wednesday. “After that, it’s matchups. It’s where you play, when you play, how healthy you are.”
Critics like to point out that the game isn’t healthy when the same teams win all of the time. Since 1995, just seven different teams have won an NCAA title with Connecticut (9), Tennessee (5) and Baylor (2) winning multiple crowns. Purdue (1999) is the only Big Ten team to win an NCAA title. New conference member Maryland (2006) won while in the ACC.
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“The problem is that a lot of people don’t start watching basketball until March Madness, so then of course you’re going to see the same teams play because it’s a tournament,” Washington said. “The ones that win keep playing. But if you watch throughout the season, there’s a lot of good basketball and a lot of good matchups.”
“You have to not compare yourself to other teams, but nobody says men’s basketball isn’t healthy when you’ve got a really dominant team (Kentucky) running through their conference and non-conference season,” she added. “I think our game is really healthy. I think we’ve got some outstanding coaches in programs at the top. I think we’ve got some really good programs throughout the Top 20 and 25. I think our game is growing and we’re getting better players.”
As a voter in the USA Today Coaches Poll, Washington has paid attention to how a number of the ranked teams have faced stiff competition and haven’t always won. Several teams ranked between 10 and 25 have as many as seven losses.
“That speaks to the competitiveness throughout the Top 25,” she said. “Our game is probably the most competitive that it’s ever been at this point in the season. You’ve got a lot of teams that can win on any given night.”
But, UConn is still the prohibitive favorite to take another crown, especially after burying No. 1 South Carolina 87-62 recently.
Washington says that cracking the elite isn’t an elaborate formula.
“Get Breanna Stewart and Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis,” she said of UConn’sAll-Americans. “Look at Kentucky, they’ve got the best players. To a degree it’s about talent. You’ve got to get enough of them. You don’t have to have all of them, but you have to have enough of them. A lot of it is recruiting — getting good players and making them better.”
The challenges to land those top players is an ongoing battle. The good news is that Geno Auriemma doesn’t always win every recruiting battle.
“Ten years ago, South Carolina was nowhere close to being in the hunt for the No. 1 player in the nation, but they got her last year,” said Washington of the Gamecocks’ A’ja Wilson. “I think kids are becoming more willing to go to different places and different schools. I think that’s one of the reasons why the game is where it is in terms of its competitiveness.”
Help on the way
Washington’s club has struggled through a 6-20 season, on pace to be the worst in program history.
But, she hopes help is coming with a strong recruiting class. The Class of 2015 — guards Teniya Page and Amari Carter and posts Ashanti Thomas and Jaylen Williams — is ranked in the Top 10. Carter has missed her high school senior season with a knee injury suffered over the summer.
“Some of the gaps that we have on the team, they address,” she said of the recruits. “We’ve got some guards that are really good outside shooters. That’s been an area where we’ve struggled this year. ... They bring a little bit more speed to our backcourt and I always think speed in the backcourt is helpful. We’ve got two post players coming in. They’re strong rebounders, finishers and defenders and will give us a boost.”
Penn State has its only bye of the Big Ten season this week before traveling to Maryland on Monday. That’s the first of three games in a week to conclude the regular season. The Lady Lions (3-12) are tied with Purdue at the bottom of the league standings. Four more teams have at least 10 losses as they jockey for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament.
With a least one game guaranteed in the Big Ten Tournament, that’s just four more opportunities to close out the season strong.
“I don’t know how important it is, but I think it would be good for us to finish strong,” Washington said to the query. “To ‘finish strong’ is relative. The most important thing for us is to continue to get better.”
Sophomore guard Sierra Moore has a little different take.
“It’s really important for us to finish strong,” she said before Wednesday’s practice. “That’s what we’ve been focusing on — the latter half of the season. I think we’re doing a good job. We just need to put a little bit more together and I think we’ll be fine. Next year is going to be great.
“I think there is momentum,” Moore added. “You see how you finish the season and you want to keep progressing after that. That’s what we’re going to do — finish the season strong and keep striving for greatness.”