July 25, 2023
State of the Program: Penn State hoping transfer portal acquisitions produce first winning season since 2016-17
Carolyn Kieger's group hopes some fresh faces help turn the tide in State College
It’s been a long slog at Penn State for awhile now. The Nittany Lions haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament in almost a decade. They’ve finished in the bottom four of the Big Ten in every season since 2017-18 and lost eight players from last year’s roster to either the transfer portal or graduation.
Yet, there’s more reason for optimism in State College headed into the 2023-24 season than there’s been since head coach Carolyn Kieger took over more than four years ago. A combination of talented additions through the portal and the return of three top-tier Big Ten players make Penn State a dark horse candidate to make some noise in the conference.
Last season, the Nittany Lions finished 14-17 overall, but four of the losses came in overtime, and they pushed a talented Michigan team down to the wire in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round. Those moral victories only go so far, of course, but it hints that Penn State might be closer than the record last year suggests to turning things around.
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With the return of last year’s leading scorer, Makenna Marisa, as well as Shay Ciezki, who was one of the best 3-point shooters in the country during her freshman season (41.6%), and Leilani Kapinus, who averaged 11.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game last season, there’s a nucleus to build around.
Add in five transfers to the mix, including former Big Ten-standout Ashley Owusu, and this could be a difficult offense to slow down.
“I’m really just fired up about what we were able to do in the transfer portal and who we have coming and our core nucleus staying,” Kieger told The Next. “I think we finally have the pieces to be able to play the up-tempo and versatile system that I’ve been waiting for. … Our team, this summer, they’re hungry, and they’re ready to shock the world.”
2022-23 record: 14-17 (4-14 Big Ten)
Big Ten finish: 12th
Notable wins: vs. Syracuse (82-69), vs. Toledo (60-59), vs. West Virginia (69-57), vs. Purdue (70-60).
Departures: Ivane Tensaie (transferring to UTEP), Aicha Dia (transferring to Cincinnati), Ymke Brouwer (transferring to Manhattan), Anna Camden (transferring to Richmond), Kayla Thomas (transferring to Georgia Southern), Taniyah Thompson (transferring to Georgia), Alexa Williamson (graduation), Johnasia Cash (graduation).
Additions: Ashley Owusu (transferring from Virginia Tech), Taylor Valladay (transferring from Virginia), Grace Hall (transferring from Wabash), Jayla Oden (transferring from Illinois), Kylie Lavelle (transferring from Drexel).
Key returners: Makenna Marisa, Shay Ciezki, Leilani Kapinus.
The transfer portal, of course, is a double-edged sword, and this offseason demonstrated both ends for Penn State. There is not a single freshman on the roster, yet Kieger’s been able to build a team that has quite a bit of talent – on paper, at least.
“We know we have a core group, and we have a talented core group, and we just need to surround them with a couple more pieces, more depth, more versatility, more speed, more offensive weapons,” Kieger said. “What I think is really unique about this roster is no one player of the 13 is similar. They’re all different. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, so they’re going to complement each other really, really well.”
The player with arguably the most intrigue is Owusu, who spent last season at Virginia Tech after the previous three seasons at Maryland. After averaging 14.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game in College Park, Owusu fell on harder times last season in Blacksburg. She started the first seven games before missing the next six weeks with a broken pinkie finger, and then never played more than 8:02 in a game in February. Owusu never appeared in any of the Hokies’ ACC or NCAA Tournament games, even though as she told The Next: “I’m good to go.”
Perhaps her third destination in three seasons will finally be the right fit. With so many new players coming into the fold, Owusu should have the chance to take the reins for an offense featuring several strong shooters.
“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” said Kieger. “She’s excited to be back in the Big Ten; she’s excited to take a program and help them get to the tournament. She knows what it takes to win. She knows what it takes to win in the Big Ten. … She’s in a really great spot right now, and I think our style of play is going to fit her to a tee, give her the ball in her hands, work off ball screens, navigate ball screens. She’s going to have shooters on both sides of the floor to give her space and create space.”
Ciezki looks to be one of those shooters. Coming off her freshman season as one of the best shooters from beyond the arc in the country, she’s only come back this summer more focused and ready to take the program to the next level.
“This is probably a really bold statement – I’ve coached a lot of elite guards in the WNBA, ACC first teamers, ACC player of the year, BIG EAST player of the year – Shay has had the largest growth in one year that I’ve seen out of anyone that I’ve coached,” Kieger said. “Her growth between spring into now has been huge. She’s carrying herself with more confidence. She’s leading the team. She’s the first in every rep. She’s shooting the ball extremely well. She’s becoming very shifty. She’s working on her conditioning, her fitness, and I just expect her to have a phenomenal sophomore campaign here.”
In addition to the continued growth of Ciezki, Kieger also highlighted Kapinus and her elite skill on defense as something to watch this coming season. For a team that had one of the worst defenses in the country last year, Kapinus’ defensive prowess rubbing off on her teammates will be a key to the team’s success.
“She can defend one through five. She’s an anomaly,” Kieger said. “She is probably one of the most physical, tenacious defenders I’ve ever seen.”
Can that rub off on her teammates, though? So far, the early returns suggest so.
“What makes you a great defender is if your team is a great defensive team, and that’s what we haven’t been,” Kieger continued. “I think she’s really taking that to heart now with leading the defense and making sure everyone is being a stickler to their roles, everyone’s being elite-level communicators.”
Adding Taylor Valladay through the portal should also help address the program’s defensive shortcomings. At Virginia last year, she averaged 1.4 steals per game.
The last key player to watch is the one who’s been one of the few bright spots during the last few years of struggles: Marisa.
Consistently one of the top scorers in the Big Ten, she should finally have some help, allowing her to maximize her skillset. Perhaps that means less pressure on her to shoot as much, so she can become a more efficient scorer while also opening up the floor for her teammates. More than anything, though, Kieger wants her to finally get a taste of team success she’s worked so hard to try to cultivate.
“I want this kid to succeed here at Penn State because she’s been through a lot,” Kieger said. “Going through a rebuild, going through it in the middle of COVID, has not been easy. She stuck with it; she stayed loyal. She’s Penn State through and through.”
And while it’s no sure thing all of these new pieces will arrive on campus and mesh with Marisa and the rest of the returners, so far, there are lots of early positive signs. Foremost, Kieger said, is player-led team building.
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“The last four years, it was a lot of coach-fed and coach-led, but now it’s a lot of coach-fed and player-led, which is awesome,” she said. “They’re all humble, and they all want a chance to do something special.”
The road to get here for Kieger certainly hasn’t been easy. The Nittany Lions have improved their win total in each of her first four seasons, but the fact that that still hasn’t led to a postseason appearance speaks to how much work it’s taken to rebuild the program.
Now, she believes, it’s time to take that big leap forward.
“It’s taken us four years to get to this point, but I think we’re ready,” she said. “I think this group is going to be really fun to watch. I think we’re going to be one of the fastest, most athletic teams in the country. I think we’ll have one of the best back courts, and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
For further offseason reading on Big Ten women’s basketball, check out Eric Rynston-Lobel’s full State of the Program series.
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.