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Giger: Kieger looks like great hire for Penn State

Penn State made what looks like a terrific hire in selecting Carolyn Kieger as the new women’s basketball coach.

Kieger’s background is exactly what the Lady Lions should have been looking for. She was a very good college player herself at Marquette, put in several years as an assistant coach for a major program at Miami, then showed she could turn around a program quickly as a head coach when she took over at Marquette.

Penn State will be hoping Kieger can do the exact same thing for a Lady Lion program with terrific tradition but that had struggled in recent years under previous coach Coquese Washington.

“I’m extremely passionate. I love what I do. I love coaching the game of basketball. I love impacting lives. And I can’t wait to do that in Happy Valley with our current players and our fans and our community,” Kieger said Thursday, several hours after arriving in State College.

The biggest thing that jumps out on Kieger’s resume is the impressive rebuilding job she did after becoming head coach at her alma mater. Marquette went just 9-23 her first season in 2014-15, improved to 14-16 the next year, then went to the NCAA Tournament in year three and finished 25-8.

Marquette extended its NCAA Tournament streak to three and reached the second round in each of Kieger’s final two years there, going 24-10 and 27-8.

Penn State has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2014, which was the last of three straight years Washington led the team to a Big Ten regular-season title. Following that impressive streak, the Lady Lions sank to 6-24 the following season, and Washington was never able to get the program back to its once-lofty heights.

Penn State finished 12-18 this season, leading to Washington being let go.

Kieger’s rebuild at Marquette happened quickly. How did she do it, and what will she have to do to achieve similar success at PSU?

“You have to assess the situation, you have to look at the culture, you have to look at the work ethic,” Kieger said. “What we did is we started from the ground up, and we knew what it was going to take for greatness to occur.

“We didn’t take any shortcuts. I think we did it the right way and did it by building one day at a time. Everybody knows in this day and age there is no quick fix. You’ve got to earn everything that you deserve. And that’s the motto I’m going to bring here is we’re going to earn it.”

Kieger scored 1,277 points and dished out a school-record 694 assists as a four-year starter at Marquette. She can sell her individual success as a player to recruits, along with her coaching success.

“I consider myself a winner, and I want to win at the highest stage,” Kieger said. “In order to do that, you need to surround yourself with people that have that same goal in mind, and I really see that at Penn State with the administration.”

One of the biggest problems PSU women’s basketball faced in recent years was apathy. The proud program had become basically irrelevant, both on the national stage and with local fans.

There was no buzz around the Lady Lions, no reason to pay much attention to the team at all, really, aside from the tremendous individual success of star player Teniya Page.

Common complaints from fans have been that Washington’s style of play wasn’t fun to watch and that the players and team didn’t develop and improve over time.

Kieger plans to bring an uptempo style of play. Her Marquette team finished sixth in the nation in scoring this season at 82.0 points per game (PSU was 115th at 67.7).

That uptempo style will be fun to watch. And there’s no doubt, Kieger has work to do in winning back over the fan base after several down years.

“We want to rejuvenate it,” she said of the program. “We want to get the program back excited, we want to get the community back involved. The big goal of mine is to fill that arena back up and give the reason for fans to come to the games.”

Winning will do that. And another element that would help is keeping local high school stars in the region at home.

For instance, Penn State missed out on Bellwood-Antis star Alli Campbell, one of the top players in the country. She’s headed to Notre Dame, a perennial power and national championship contender.

If a player such as Campbell had been coming out of high school a few years ago, Penn State, coming off the three straight Big Ten titles, would have been a much more appealing destination.

If the Lady Lions are to make their way back to national prominence, they need to get back to the point where they can keep local stars.

“We want to keep players home. We want to make sure that we’re building a fence around the area,” Kieger said. “There’s so much talent here, and some of the best players in the country are in driving distance, and that’s one thing that is going to be a top priority for us is really to get that talent to play at home in front of their family and really build this thing from a regional standpoint.”

There’s no reason whatsoever that Penn State should struggle in women’s basketball. Not with the program’s tradition and fertile recruiting ground within the state.

Kieger has a good vision on how to make it all happen, and time will tell if she can pull it off.

But, as first impressions go, it appears that AD Sandy Barbour made a terrific choice on her first big hire at Penn State.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ‘Toona 1430.

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