June 10, 2023 

State of the Program: Coquese Washington excited about Year 2 at Rutgers

Rutgers hopes that four new players elevate the program in 2023-24

In an era in women’s basketball where there are heightened demands to win and short timeframes to do so, Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington took a highly unusual approach in her first season in 2022-23: She entered the season with no expectations.

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With only eight players on her roster, a relatively late start (she was hired on May 23, 2022) and a completely new environment, she just wanted to see what she had to work with and allow her players to grow without fear of failure.

“I just wanted to have a clean slate for everybody,” Washington told The Next. “Especially the returners, not having them worry about what my perception of them was allowed me to just enjoy them. It allowed me to discover who they were and how we could maximize what they brought to the table.”

Year 1 with the Scarlet Knights couldn’t quite be characterized as a success — Rutgers finished 11th in the Big Ten — but it allowed Washington to start formulating how to build the program. It’ll be no easy task, but she’s not the least bit deterred from the challenge.

“We’re hoping and planning on building a nationally elite program,” Washington said. “What it’s going to take is players, staff, everybody associated with the program who buys into that challenge and who buys into that culture.

“We’re not in a rush to try to flip it over. We’re not doing real estate. We’re not buying houses and trying to flip it over and get as much profit as we can at any time; we’re trying to build this thing in a way that’s going to have long-lasting and sustained success, and that takes time. We’re going to be patient and build it in a way that’s authentic and a way that’s meaningful for everybody associated with the program right now. And we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.”

2022-23 record: 12-20 (5-13 Big Ten)

Big Ten finish: 11th

Notable wins: None

Departures: Abby Streeter (graduated), Kai Carter (graduate transfer to Memphis)

Additions: Mya Petticord (transfer from Texas A&M), Destiny Adams (transfer from UNC), Jillian Huerter (first-year), Lisa Thompson (first-year)

Key returners: Kaylene Smikle, Chyna Cornwell, Awa Sidibe

What’s most exciting for Washington this offseason is the prospect of coaching guard Kaylene Smikle for another three seasons. In her first year, she averaged a team-high 17.9 points per game, added 4.5 rebounds per game and shot 36.1% from 3-point range.

Washington highlighted better ballhandling and becoming a more efficient passer and shooter as two areas of focus for Smikle this offseason, but Washington can also wax poetic about Smikle’s intangibles for a long time.

“What impresses me the most is her competitive fire, especially on game day,” Washington said. “I’ve played with some of the best players in the history of the game; I’ve coached some really dynamic players. And one of the things that they all have in common is that competitiveness and that chip on their shoulder on game day where they’re not going to be denied, and that’s something that Kaylene Smikle has.”

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To complement Smikle’s game, Washington also added two players out of the transfer portal. Mya Petticord comes in from Texas A&M and gives Rutgers a true point guard.

“One of the things that we sorely lacked last year was a true point guard, a floor general, somebody who could handle that responsibility of being our lead guard,” Washington said. “Mya comes in, she’s got experience of having played in the SEC and having played at Texas A&M, so we’re optimistic that she’ll give us a little bit more stability at that position.”

Guard/forward Destiny Adams also heads back to her home state of New Jersey after two years at North Carolina. Though she averaged just 4.1 points per game last season, Washington is confident that Adams can rediscover her scoring prowess.

“She scored a lot in high school, so we’re hoping coming back to New Jersey will resurrect those memories in her head about how she put the ball in the basket and give Kaylene some consistent help in terms of carrying the scoring load,” Washington said.

Rutgers also welcomes two first-year guards: Jillian Huerter, the youngest sister of Sacramento Kings guard Kevin Huerter, and Lisa Thompson, a Chicago-area native.

Jillian Huerter, Washington said, should help Rutgers spread the floor with her ability to knock down shots. Thompson brings great athleticism and positional versatility that should add to the Scarlet Knights’ depth.

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Asked what an ideal second year looks like for her program, Washington demurred. There’s no WNIT-or-bust mantra coming from her. She simply wants to see improvement and growth. Any coach would love to make a postseason tournament, but that result won’t distract from her mission of rebuilding the program.

“It’s more about the process. It’s more about getting ourselves in position where we can perform on the highest level against the toughest competition on our schedule,” Washington said. “So how do we prepare for that? How do we prepare to beat Iowa? How do we prepare to beat Indiana? … We’d love to get in postseason play next year, but the focus is certainly about small improvements that we can make daily, weekly and monthly.”

One area of focus, though: Washington’s teams are going to play fast. It’s become a more common theme for Big Ten teams, but she’s emphatic that Rutgers is going to do things its own way. It won’t compare itself to Iowa or Indiana or Maryland or Ohio State; instead, Washington will implement what works best for her players.

“We’re just looking at the way we do things, the way we run our offense, the way our defense partners with our offense and do it at a faster pace,” Washington said. “I love that we play in a conference where teams are going to play fast because it’s exciting basketball. … That’s what makes it fun for us to get out there on game day and play against the top teams in our conference.”

While Rutgers might not become one of those top teams in 2023-24, Washington has a plan. And she’s bringing in players who should help make that plan a reality sooner rather than later.

For further offseason reading on Big Ten women’s basketball, check out Eric Rynston-Lobel’s full State of the Program series. Also, don’t miss Coquese Washington’s recent appearance on the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast!

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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