The Penn State Lady Lions will open their NCAA Tournament with a first round matchup against UTEP at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday in Baton Rouge, La.
After winning the Big Ten's regular season championship, the program's first since 2004, Coach Coquese Washington's team is in the Big Dance for a second straight year. The Lions will be looking to improve on a second-round exit from last season, when they fell to DePaul in the comforts of the Bryce Jordan Center.
For a look ahead to the action, we've enlisted the help of The Daily Collegian's Lady Lions beat writer, Tim Gilbert. Tim has covered Penn State from start to finish, and you can check out his beat's coverage at the Collegian's Lady Lions' home page as well as the all-sports blog Roll Up The Score.
AB: Any thoughts on Lady Lions dropping to a No. 4 seed? Seemed like a lot of people were expecting a No. 3.
TG: It's tough to say which one the they deserved, but I think them getting the fourth seed came down to the voters not giving the Big Ten much love as a conference. Even though they had seven teams make the tourney, the highest-seeded teams were Penn State and Purdue (both No. 4's), and Ohio State tumbled all the way down to an eighth seed, when it was expected for them to be a fifth or sixth. That eighth seed means they could play Baylor in the second round, not exactly a good draw. So, I was expecting Penn State to get a No. 3, but I think the Big Ten came up short and that's why they're a four.
AB: The Lady Lions' first-round opponent, UTEP, has only lost one game in the New Year. Do you think the Miners might have been underseeded and do you think they could be dangerous in that first round?
TG: No. They haven't played anyone all year. The fact that they're hot doesn't mean their No. 81-ranked scoring offense can hurt the Lady Lions.
AB: Penn State will likely face LSU if it advances to the second round. How do the Lady Lions match up, and could a de facto home game for the Tigers in Baton Rouge trip Penn State up?
TG: The Lady Lions would certainly rather be closer to home, but I still think they'll handle LSU. Penn State went 12-4 away from the Bryce Jordan Center this season, and they've played as far away as Reno, Nev., so the road doesn't usually have a major effect on them. I don't know much about the Tigers, but I know this: They've lost to Ohio State and Northwestern (both teams Penn State defeated), and they have the No. 174-ranked offense in the NCAA with 61.6 PPG. The Lady Lions, on the other hand, are No. 10 at 75.5. Penn state also has a scoring margin of plus-14.6, while LSU has one of plus-8.6. I wouldn't be too worried if I were the Lady Lions.
AB: UConn has the worst record among No. 1 seeds and Kentucky has the second-worst among No. 2 seeds. What do you think of that draw? Does Penn State have a realistic shot of getting out of Kingston to Denver?
TG: Kingston is two hours from Bridgeport, so the Sweet Sixteen is more or less a home game for UConn's excellent fan base. Kentucky is mostly irrelevant, because beating the Huskies will be really, really hard. UConn has the best scoring margin in basketball at plus-30.6, over three points better than second place Notre Dame (plus-27.5). UConn has the fourth-best RPI in basketball, and has played the other No. 1 seeds five times. If there's a way to completely neutralize Maggie Lucas, coach Geno Auriemma and UConn's No 1-ranked defense will find it. It'll be a tough draw for Coquese Washington.
AB: Who do you think is the key player for Penn State in the tournament and why?
TG: Maggie Lucas. Don't get me wrong, it's important for center Nikki Greene to stay out of foul trouble, but if Lucas (Penn State's scoring leader) isn't making her shots, the Lady Lions aren't going to do much against the best teams in the country.
AB: What will Penn State have to do well as a team to be successful?
The Lady Lions’ are a shooting team. With two guards who average more than 14 points a game (Alex Bentley with 14.2 and Maggie Lucas with 19.1), shooting often is just their game. They play up-tempo basketball, often only running eight to 10 seconds off the shot clock before taking their first shot. They have to make them.
Foul trouble has crippled center Nikki Greene at points this season, making her seem like an underrated post presence. She’s actually a very talented player; she has the fourth-best RPG in the Big Ten (8.0) and sixth-best field goal percentage (.475). The problem is, as Washington has made note of many times this season, officials are tough on her. She often draws fouls early in games. When she’s on the floor, the Lady Lions are just a better team.
Finally, this team needs to stay healthy. Marisa Wolfe (10 games), forward Mia Nickson (nine), and Ariel Edwards (four) have missed a combined 23 games. They all appear healthy now, but need to remain that way if this team wants to make a run in the tournament. For instance, had Edwards been healthy in the Lady Lions’ most recent game, a loss against a deep Purdue team, the outcome probably would have been different.
AB: Have the players talked about how last year's experience will help this year?
TG: They've expressed how much more experienced they are this year with last year's loss under their belts. They've also said that they're a more confident bunch.
AB: Overall thoughts on Penn State and this year's tournament?
TG: If the Lady Lions had received a No. 3 seed, they would be going to the Elite Eight. Still, Washington is slowly but surely making Penn State a national power again. This is the highest seed they've gotten under her and the first time they've made back-to-back tournaments since a run from 1999-2005. If they make the Sweet Sixteen, the season was a success. Anything less than that is a disappointment.