Penn State women's basketball hadn't quite been itself for about five or six seasons. I would imagine many of the casual fans who flocked to games and watched on TV during the Portland era were turned off by the virtual crash and burn this program sustained due to the poor performance on the court, and the terrible situation off it. And as the program continued to struggle under Portland's successor, Coquese Washington, there was literally no chance of restoring the glory anytime in the near future. As long as the team wasn't winning big--like, really big--the fans stayed away.
Well I'm here today to tell you that the perception of this program is about to change back to what it was, possibly better, and how 2011 could be the year it happens.Granted, some of you will never care about the Lady Lions, or women's sport in general (Hey Devon!), but it's difficult taking seriously any attempt to argue that Penn State women's basketball through its history hasn't been a successful program for the athletic department. But with losing seasons from 2006 through 2009, it's completely understandable why the fan base melted away faster than the W's.
Washington knew what she was doing. Penn State is now coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005, with the Lady Lions falling in a close 2-point game to DePaul in the second round. Penn State finished 25-10 last season, 11-5 in the Big Ten including a trip to the Big Ten Tournament Final. This was still a young team last year, with only one senior in the lineup, Julia Trogele. They made mistakes. They lost some games they probably shouldn't have. But the Lady Lions also beat some teams they probably shouldn't have. Even some impressive records were broken in 2011.
As the season draws closer, we'll discuss the Lady Lions more. But I didn't want to dive into posting on this team without a little lead-in material. Not only does it help set the tone a bit for this season's coverage of the Lady Lions, but it can also give you all an idea of where I'm coming from.
Penn State returns everyone from last year's NCAA Tourney team except Trogele. The senior forward was a great leader and a good player. But there is way more than enough talent to fill that gap in the lineup for 2011-12. Freshman All-American Maggie Lucas, All-Big Ten performer and preseason 2011-12 Big Ten Player of the Year Alex Bentley, and junior captains Mia Nickson and Marisa Wolfe. Nickson will serve as team captain for the second-straight season.
"I think we're back at a point we want to be, in terms of being a nationally relevant program and certainly being a program that's in the conversation for competing for the Big Ten championship and being in postseason play and hopefully making a run to the Final Four," Washington told the press at media day.
"We're back in that sense and it's good to be there."
That Lady Lions' experience will get some stern tests well before the Big Ten schedule heats up, as Penn State is staring down dates with not only a Texas Tech team that started last season 16-1 (the only loss was to PSU), but also playing host to 2011 Sweet 16 team North Carolina (28-9). Penn State will also face 2011 NIT teams South Carolina and Delaware.
"Going to Delaware, that's not an easy place to play, especially when you've got arguably the best player in the country (Elena Della Donne) suiting up for the other team," Washington added. "We've got some pretty tough road games in our non-conference. Hopefully, that will get us ready for Big Ten play and post-season play."
The pressure is on Penn State to perform this season. Both the Big Ten coaches and media selected Penn State to win the Big Ten; the AP and Coaches polls both ranked the Lady Lions higher than in any preseason poll since 2004.
But Washington repeated during the media day presser that her team was looking forward to the high expectations, saying, "It's fun. It's fun to come into the season and feel like you have a chance to do something special; to come into the season and feel like we truly have a shot at being Big Ten Champions, we truly have a shot at advancing pretty far in the NCAA Tournament. That makes it fun and exciting. That's what all of these kids came here for. They didn't sign to come to Penn State to be middle-of-the-pack. They came here because they're competitive. They're a competitive bunch and they want to be the best. To come into the season and be in that position at this moment, it's exciting for us. We embrace it and we're enjoying it."
The Lady Lions open their exhibition season on Saturday against Bloomsburg at 2 p.m. inside the Bryce Jordan Center.