In order to be the best, one has to beat the best.
If the No. 8 Lady Lions have any real ambition to make it to the Final Four in New Orleans, and try to win it all, they will have to showcase their talent early on in the season, as they face a tough non-conference schedule.
It all begins on Sunday when the team faces a scrappy Howard team, who is returning four of their five starters after a 24-9 season and averaged 36.5 rebounds per game.
“Our non-conference is certainly going to challenge us,” head coach Coquese Washington said. “It starts right away. You look at Howard, an NIT team, that returns 80 percent of its scoring, 90 percent of its rebounding… we get after it with a bang.”
However, Howard should be easy for the Lions compared to future opponents, such as No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 24 Miami (Fla.), and No. 2 Connecticut. Making things even more difficult is that those three games are all on the road.
“We wanted to challenge the team and really put them in some NCAA-atmosphere games early on,” assistant coach Kia Damon said in October’s media day. “Obviously going into Storrs, Connecticut will provide a challenge in that regard, as well as going to College Station for Texas A&M.”
The Lions may catch a break against Texas A&M, as Penn State will face the Lady Aggies during a three game stretch, where A&M plays No. 9 Louisville, No. 8 Penn State, and then No. 2 Connecticut, in nine days.
That might be the only break the team will see in a demanding non-conference schedule as they will also face a NCAA tournament potential team in Georgetown, who went 23-9 last year, but returns only two starters.
Altogether, out of the 12 teams the Lions play in non-conference, five have the potential of reaching the NCAA tournament, i.e. Howard, Texas A&M, Miami, Connecticut, Georgetown.
“We want to have that experience, so that when we get to postseason play, we will have seen some of the best that the nation has to offer,” Washington said. “That will help us, we hope, have success in postseason play.”
Washington also hopes the team’s variety of possible lineups and rotations can prove difficulty to opponents’ scouting, giving an edge to the Lions.
Junior forward Talia East hopes to be an effective part of that rotation, being one of the players coming off the bench.
In preparation for the strenuous non-conference stretch that looms, East said she has been practicing rebounding, defense, and finish.
“We do a lot of rebounding drills in practice, but I try to do some before practice,” East said. “Just [trying to work] on securing the ball with two hands, [and] going back up strong.”
That extra practice will be crucial during the non-conference stretch, which features several good rebounding teams, starting with Howard.
Washington said that parts of the non-conference schedule is dictated by finances and location, but even with limitations, great teams can be found.
“They’re a tough, quality opponent to start the season with.”