It isn't often that a program with a fantastic recruiting record and a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year finds itself rebuilding, but that's the state of the Penn State Lady Lions. After three straight seasons with the best record in the Big Ten, the Lady Lions graduated four starters, and last year rode an inexperienced roster into one of the worst records in the conference. To my mind, this makes them one of the most interesting stories in Big Ten basketball, and I was able to speak with head coach Coquese Washington and recruiting coordinator Itoro Coleman about the state of women’s basketball, their need for speed, and the recruiting class of 2021, among many other topics.
In conversation, Itoro Coleman speaks in rapid bursts, running sentence into sentence and thought into thought until she sometimes runs out of breath. In contrast, Coquese has a very deliberate rhythm, and will pause for several seconds to organize her thoughts. Occasionally, the head coach would walk back something she had said and amend it, verbally editing herself on the fly. She comes across as a person who likes to say exactly what she means.
I spoke with the two coaches separately over the phone, wanting to learn about Penn State recruiting. Both were open and frank, giving me an insight into their process and philosophies.
Some of what they’re looking for is what every coach would look for. (You like tall, athletic players who can shoot? Why, you don’t say!) But under Coquese Washington Penn State has consistently been one of the fastest teams in the conference, attacking in transition and shooting early in the shot clock. Every coach likes speed; Penn State needs it.
The two conversations have been edited, condensed, and combined for readability.
BTP Interviews Coquese Washington and Itoro Coleman
Wren: You’ve got some exciting freshman coming in this year: a couple of guards in Teniya Page and Amari Carter, some post prospects in Ashanti Thomas and Jaylen Williams. When did you first hear about these young players?
Coquese: Most of them, pretty early high school.
Itoro: The way that recruiting is going right now, it’s good that you identify those young prospects early, so you can start developing relationships. But it’s crazy, I mean we have 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 on our list.
Wren: 2021? How old are they right now?
Itoro: Like 7th grade. (Laughs.) It’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But the earlier you’re able to identify a prospect...
Coquese: Yeah, seventh, eighth graders, they’re on the radar. I think that’s one of the strengths of our staff... There are certain intangibles you have to spot, and I’m just fortunate to have assistant coaches who are really good at that.
Wren: Can you articulate any of these intangibles?
Coquese: I’ll preface my statement by saying, I think it’s critical that assistant coaches and head coaches be diligent in recruiting players that are a good fit for them and for their program. There’s no one size fits all. So anything that I say is pertinent to Penn State women’s basketball, and it may not be applicable for any other program, because it’s my preference, it’s how I like to coach. We certainly like speed. We certainly look for athleticism. At a young age you want to see a certain amount of hunger, a certain amount of passion... I like to see those kids who look like they’re just having a ball playing basketball. That often translates to a kid who’s willing to do the work that it takes to be really good.
Wren: You talk about speed. Last year, according to WBBState.com, you were the fifth-fastest team in the Big Ten. How fast are you going to play this year?
Coquese: That was too slow for us. I wasn’t thrilled with the pace that we played with. Some of that, I think, was our youth and inexperience. A lot of freshman and sophomores getting their first taste of playing time, the game was too fast for them. When it’s too fast for you, your tendency is to slow down. Slow down so you can see things, slow down so you can make reads, slow down so plays can develop... The pace of the game won’t be as slow for our team this year as it was last year. I’d like to be the fastest team in the Big Ten if possible, but I know Ohio State plays pretty fast.
Wren: Yeah, almost 80 possessions per 40 minutes. [Note: for context, this is only slightly slower than the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, the famous "Seven Seconds or Less" squad with Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni.]
Coquese: Yeah, so hopefully the two of us will be rivaling each other in fighting for that, "Fastest Team In The Midwest."
Wren: I want to talk about some of these high school showcases, The Nike Hoops summit, or the Battle-in-the-Boro. Do you go to these in person, or watch tape of them? How do you scout them?
Coquese: I’m mostly going to them in person. There’s so much you don’t see on tape that you can see in person. Body language. The interaction between the players and the coaches, the interaction between the players and their teammates. How they react to what’s going on in the crowd. Are they able to tune distractions out? Are they affected by it? Those kind of things that you only really see in person. How they warm up, you may not see that on tape. There are lots of things that I like to watch around the game to evaluate a player as well as what they do during the time they’re playing on the court.
Wren: So ESPN sometimes shows high school boys - they never show high school girls - and a couple weeks ago they had the Under Armor showcase, and I thought it was probably the worst game of basketball I’d ever seen in my life. Every other play is an alley-oop thrown out of bounds, or a step-back 3 airball, and absolutely no defense. There’s tremendous pressure on these kids to stand out. Are the high school girls throwing no-look passes into the second row? Do those showcases have the same issues?
Itoro: Well, you know what, it’s basketball. Sometimes you’re gonna get that, and sometimes you get good basketball. The thing we look at is just their skill set. Can they dribble? Can they shoot? Can they defend? Whether they can do a 360 in the air and throw it down is pretty impressive, but what else can you do?
Coquese: I think when you have those all-star games, it does become a very guard-dominant game, much like the NBA All-Star game or the WNBA All-Star game. The guards are taking the majority of the shots. It’s sometimes tough to evaluate post players in those environments - they’re kind of running sprints. Basically running up and down the court while the guards get all the action.
Itoro: For post players, I look at how they get position in the post, how well they run the floor. Do they have good hands, meaning you can catch bad passes? How fast can they get down the court?
Coquese: Generally speaking, you already know that those kids are good. So whether they perform well or not on that stage - at least for me - it doesn’t tilt my impression one way or another, because we’ve already evaluated them, looked at their skill set, what we believe they’re capable of doing on the next level. Those events are really for the fans, the parents to enjoy an all-star event. But I don’t think it weighs very much for most of the college coaches as an evaluation tool.
Wren: Are there skills, or types of players, that don’t work in the NCAA? Like do you ever see a dominant high schooler, and think, yeah, but you’re not going to be able to do that at the next level?
Coquese: I can’t say that, because there’s so many levels. You know, I think there are certain traits that will allow you to be successful on the BCS level. But you can find, for example, an undersized post who might be a role player in the SEC, but they can go to maybe a mid-major and be an all-conference player. It depends on how a particular program and how a particular coach likes to utilize players. That’s the biggest thing. You see kids who you think, man I didn’t think she’d be that good, at least on the BCS level, and you get to the right program and the coach is using them in a specific way, and that’s allowing them to be successful.
Wren: What about the opposite - are there skills or types of players that do transition to college ball more easily?
Coquese: Speed always sticks out.
Itoro: Athleticism. If you’re athletic in high school, nine times out of ten you’re going to be athletic in college.
Coquese: Shooting ability. Being able to make shots sticks out.
Itoro: If a shooter shoots well in high school, she’ll be able to shoot well in college, but how she gets shots will be different. She probably won’t be open as much as she is in high school, just because in college, you scout them. You got players that are quick enough to stay with her. So that shooter will be able to shoot, but she has to learn how to come off a screen. She has to learn how to cut hard. She has to learn how to shoot with a short amount of space. So, she’s still a shooter, but how she gets those shots will be different.
Coquese: And height. If you’ve got some height, you can be an impact player to some degree.
Itoro: We like recruiting versatile players, players that can do more than one thing. For example, post players that play back to the basket usually can’t shoot from the outside, but we like recruiting players that can shoot the three, that can shoot the high-post jumper, as well as back to the basket players. People look at our roster and say, "Hey, you got a lot of tall people." But we don’t recruit [saying] you’re a point guard, you’re a shooting guard, you’re a four. We like recruiting versatile players with different skill sets.
Wren: Are good players ever an obstacle to recruiting? I’m thinking of after the 2011-2012 season, you have all these great young players. Sweet Sixteen. Are high schoolers paying attention to that stuff, are they worried about their minutes?
Itoro: Are people worried about their minutes? I’m sure that happens, but the thing I deal with the most is not wanting to make a mistake. Fear of making mistakes.
Coquese: One thing in women’s basketball is, players like to play with other good players. That’s what you see on the women’s side. You know, the talent tends to go - what’s the phrase? "The rich get richer." That seems to be a trend in women’s basketball: The better players go to the better teams. In men’s basketball, I think you see a little bit more parity, and that’s a testament to the bravado that young men have. They’re excited about going somewhere and being the man and having the team on your shoulders. In women’s basketball, the best kids want to play with other good talent. When we have a good year, it’s a positive for us in recruiting, because like I said, kids want to play with other good players.
Wren: As fans, we follow recruiting, we follow commitments, and then we see nothing until the season starts. What do you have to do to prepare freshman for a much faster, bigger game?
Coquese: We have a tremendous strength coach on our staff, and he does a fantastic job of getting our team physically prepared for the rigors of Big Ten play.
Itoro: They’re huffing and puffing, they’re trying to retain all this information, but they can’t because they’re breathing so hard.
Wren: In terms of strength training... Well, first of all, did you see the article in the New York Times that ran during the U.S. Open, sort of about Serena Williams’ training, sort of about other tennis player’s training?
Coquese: No, I didn’t see that.
Wren: Oh, it’s really interesting. It had the headline "Tennis’ Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition." The reporter interviewed a bunch of players at the U.S. Open, and some of the things the players said were mind blowing, sometimes heartbreaking. Very few players are willing to bulk up in the way Serena has in order to become as dominant as she is. One player said she couldn’t stand to see pictures of herself doing a two-handed backhand, because her upper arm muscles bulged. One female player’s male coach said the team was committed to making her the smallest player in the Top 10, and by smallest he meant by weight. This is a professional athlete! This is a tough issue. Female athletes get probably a wider variety of opinions and advice and pressures on how they are supposed to behave and look than any other group of people. Is this a conversation that you have with your players? Does it come up?
Coquese: You know, that’s an interesting perspective. What I’ve seen from our players is, they’re pretty proud of their muscles. They’re walking around with tank tops on, rolling up their sleeves. And I’m like "Cover those arms up!" (Laughs.) I do recognize for some sports, and for lots of women and lots of girls, body image is an issue. We don’t talk about weight at all around our program. I don’t care what they weigh. We talk about, is your body composition best suited for optimal recovery and optimal injury prevention? Because the more out-of-shape you are, the more susceptible you are to injury. Our kids buy into it, but I do know that for lots of female athletes it is an issue. I’m just fortunate that it hasn’t been an issue for me in my time at Penn State.
Wren: I wanted to take a second to talk about the White Paper Summer. So a bunch of professionals invested in the game of women’s basketball, and as a group you said that the Final Four should be moved a week later, and that the top-16 seeds should host first and second round games, a bunch of other interesting stuff. What has the NCAA done with your recommendations?
Coquese: One of the things they’ve done, which is really cool, has been the establishment of a women’s basketball committee that is in charge of reviewing and analyzing all aspects of women’s basketball. I think before, there were so many different committees and organizations and constituents attempting to set policy or direction. With the establishment of a women’s basketball committee you kind of have one body that is responsive to all these recommendations. You see some of the recommendations being put forward. The Final Four is going to a Friday-Sunday timeframe in a couple years. The top 16 seeds are hosting the first and second round of the NCAA tournament. I think the white paper - I don’t know that there was anything earth-shattering in the white paper for people who live women’s basketball, but it certainly was a call to action.
Wren: It’s great that they’re listening to you. Over the course of the conversation about growing the game, making sure it continues to be an exciting game, I’m really curious, did anyone say the words "Connecticut," "Geno Auriemma" or "Competitive balance?"
Coquese: Certainly, Connecticut has won the last three national championships. If you’re looking at it from that vantage point, you may question that [competitive balance], but when you look across the spectrum, when you look at the rise of the teams that are coming up... You see a team like South Carolina who’s having a fantastic run and growing. You look at Florida State who made the Elite Eight, you look at Arizona State making the Elite Eight. There are a growing number of teams outside of the top one or two spots, there’s certainly a lot more parity in women’s basketball.
Wren: Do you buy the argument - this argument goes around every once in a while - that 30 or 40 years after the NCAA tournament and the NIT tournament are founded, John Wooden is winning all these titles. Now, 30 or 40 years after Title IX, Geno Auriemma is winning all these titles. Do you think to a certain extent it’s the era, or is it what you said earlier about the rich getting richer?
Coquese: I don’t know. My perspective and my experience has been, everything is cyclical. In football, there was the era where the Green Bay Packers were dominant. You know, the Pittsburgh Steelers were dominating, and then the San Francisco 49ers were dominating. You just have eras of dominance. You look over history: There was time when Texas women’s basketball was dominant. A time when Louisiana Tech women’s basketball was dominant. Certainly Tennessee women’s basketball was dominant. Now we’re in the Connecticut era. I don’t put much stock into anything more than that, that it’s a cycle. Certainly, the Penn State era will come around pretty soon, I hope. (Laughs.)
Penn State opens their season November 1st against Division II national champions California (PA), and their Big Ten season against Northwestern on New Year’s Eve.