UNIVERSITY PARK - For the past few seasons, Penn State women's basketball coach Coquese Washington had what she called a "wonderful luxury" - a core group of veteran players that sparked the Lady Lions to back-to-back Big Ten regular-season titles.
A crop of first-year players - eight in all - has since replaced that core group. With that crop has come a new challenge for the Penn State coach as she enters her seventh season.
"It's almost like, in some ways, starting over," said Washington, who spoke Tuesday at the Lady Lions' media day at the Bryce Jordan Center. "It's certainly different."
Penn State lost five players from last year's team, which finished 26-6, repeated as Big Ten champions and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The graduated players included three starters - WNBA draft picks and all-Big Ten selections Alex Bentley and Nikki Greene, and Mia Nickson - and accounted for 45 percent of the Lady Lions' scoring and 46 percent of their rebounds.
Helping to replace those numbers will be a Top 10 recruiting class, the largest in the program's history that includes seven freshman (though guard Lindsey Spann is out indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament). Another new addition to the team is Duke transfer Sierra Moore, a sophomore guard who will sit out the 2013-14 season.
Just how the newcomers will fit into the team's dynamic is yet to be determined.
"We're still trying to figure out who's going to do what," Washington said. "The last three years, you knew what Alex Bentley was going to do, you knew what Nikki Greene was going to do, you knew what Mia Nickson was going to do. Now, we have to figure out, as we get into games and scrimmages, who's going to show up when the lights turn on."
Along the way, Washington said she has taken advice from longtime Penn State volleyball coach Russ Rose on how to best indoctrinate a large group of players into her program.
"One of the things he told me, about having a new team and a different team when you graduate some stalwarts and people who had big impacts, is keep the standards high," she said. "Keep the expectations really, really high and they'll meet them. So that's how we've been coaching them these first few weeks of practice. We've kept the expectations high. We've been very demanding."
The Lady Lions have four seniors on their 2013-14 roster, led by last year's leading scorer and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas.
Lucas, along with Dara Taylor, Talia East and Ariel Edwards, have played big parts in helping the new group of players.
"We have good leadership and they're helping us get ready," said freshman Peyton Whitted. "(Lucas) pushes everyone and she pushes herself. She really motivates me to work harder in practice. Same with all the other seniors, too."
Added Lucas, "Every upperclassmen, every returner has taken on a leadership role. With having so many newcomers, it's important that we're setting a good example of what's expected in this program. Every returner has done a phenomenal job of doing so."
The Lady Lions will play Lock Haven in an exhibition game Oct. 27 at the Bryce Jordan Center before opening the regular season Nov. 8 at home against St. Francis (Pa.).
Penn State non-conference schedule is highlighted by visits to the Bryce Jordan Center from Connecticut (Nov. 17), Notre Dame (Dec. 4), and Texas A&M (Dec. 15), three programs who have all played in the national championship game since 2011. UConn is the defending champion.
"It's a challenging schedule but I think they're capable of performing well," Washington said. "When we get into conference play, it's going to be just as tough. When you get into postseason play, it's going to be just as tough. You might as well jump into the deep end of the pool and swim. That's how we're looking at it."