When she looks at the bracket sheet and sees a minor surprise (Cal) and a major surprise (Louisville) headed to the upcoming women's Final Four, Penn State coach Coquese Washington can't help but think that it portends good things for a sport in which power has typically been concentrated in the hands of a few elite programs.
"It makes for good basketball," Washington said. "It makes for exciting basketball, and it certainly gives us confidence that we can get back at it this spring, this summer, this fall, and that next year we can be a really competitive team and a team that advances in the NCAA tournament.
"There is so much parity, and there are good players who maybe people don't know about," she added. "You get in the NCAA tournament and there are good teams and great players out there. And we feel like we have our fair share here at Penn State."
The Lady Lions, who gathered for a postseason media debriefing Thursday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center, are between eras at the moment. Five seniors are departing, including three of the team's top four scorers from this past season, and a seven-member freshman class is getting set to enroll this coming August.
Given the impending roster upheaval, the results of this year's tournament have to be considered mixed at best. Penn State will definitely benefit next season if the losses by top-seeded Stanford (61-59 to Georgia in the Spokane Regional semifinals) and Baylor (82-81 to Louisville in the Oklahoma City Regional semis) are indicative of a shrinking gap between the elite teams and the rest of Division I. But this past season, the Lady Lions were supposed to be one of those elite teams. They were the Big Ten's regular-season champions and were seeded third in the Spokane Regional. They looked strong in routing Cal Poly, 85-55, in the tournament's first round, but everything unraveled in the second round and they were upset by sixth-seeded LSU, 71-66, in Baton Rouge, La.
The loss ended Penn State's season, as well as the careers of Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe. Bentley and Greene were four-year starters, while Nickson started three years after transferring from Boston College following her freshman year.
Before the class arrived, Penn State had suffered four consecutive losing seasons. But with Bentley, Greene and Nickson leading the way, the Lady Lions improved their record each of the past four seasons and went 26-6 (14-2 Big Ten) this year.
"It's really amazing, and it warms my heart," Washington said, "just [to see] the growth over the past four years that this program has seen, and it's directly because of the seniors and what they brought to this team and this program - the attitude, the work ethic. When I look at it like that, I'm extremely proud of what we've been able to accomplish. I'm really thrilled at the legacy that our senior class will leave behind."
Next season, the Lady Lions will build around their backcourt, with leading scorer Maggie Lucas returning for her senior year after averaging 20.1 points a game this past season and winning second-team AP All-America notice. She'll be joined by fellow senior Dara Taylor, who will move to the point full-time as Bentley's replacement. In the frontcourt, forwards Ariel Edwards and Tori Waldner and centers Talia East and Candice Agee are back. After that, Penn State's roster will be made up entirely of freshmen.
The Lady Lions don't have their nonconference schedule set for next season, but they do know they will be hosting Connecticut and Texas A&M, as well as a game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Washington said the schedule might be even tougher than the one Penn State played this past season, which was rated sixth-best in Division I. "We're going to challenge ourselves as a program," she said. "We're going to challenge these freshmen."
As for the postseason, any decision about whether Penn State will bid to host a subregional in the NCAA tournament will have to wait until the NCAA decides what type of format it wants to use.
Under the current system, the 16 subregional sites are determined before the season begins; that's why the Lady Lions ended up playing LSU on the Tigers' home court this year even though they were the higher seeded team.
The selection committee's decision to send Penn State to LSU for the second season in a row drew some media criticism, with ESPN blogger Charlie Creme calling it "a raw deal." Washington said the NCAA is looking at a variety of formats for hosting first- and second-round games. Asked if she preferred any particular format, the Lady Lions' sixth-year coach shook her head.
"I don't care," she said. "I just want to be in it."