Penn State's time adrift is reminder of small margin for error

Penn State tops Iowa to end two-game skid (0:53)

Jaida Travascio-Green scores 16 points in Penn State's 71-58 victory over Ohio State. (0:53)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When she initially committed to Penn State, Amari Carter's résumé read like that of a player who would keep a program among the sport's upper crust.

Whatever it lacked in national championships, after all, Penn State made up for in baubles such as Big Ten titles, including three in a row under Coquese Washington from 2012-14, and NCAA tournament trips. Ranked by ESPN Hoopgurlz as the nation's No. 32 recruit, Carter seemingly epitomized the line of succession that puts such programs on top season after season.

But by the time the point guard completed a college game for the first time a few months ago, two ACL injuries and two full seasons removed from that initial verbal commitment, she embodied the program in a rather different manner. She has no desire to relive her past two basketball seasons. Neither does Penn State.

What can be lost in the blink of an eye is more slowly recovered.

The regularity with which the same programs win season after season makes their success feel like a given. Most obviously, Connecticut chases its 90th consecutive win and perhaps its fifth consecutive title. Notre Dame, Stanford or half a dozen others also have staying power. But while a certain level of success feels like a birthright for a few programs, it isn't.

After at least a share of three consecutive Big Ten regular-season titles, after four trips in a row to the NCAA tournament and 25 appearances overall, Penn State cratered to a 6-24 record in the 2014-15 season. Only one school in a major conference had fewer wins. The Lady Lions then won just 12 games a season ago.

There was no great scandal within the program. There weren't mass transfers. A strong senior class moved on. A player here or there doesn't develop as anticipated. A recruit such as Kia Nurse chooses another school. A newcomer such as Carter or a veteran such as Sierra Moore is lost to season-ending injury.

Half a dozen smaller factors combine to reveal how small a margin for error there really is for most programs. Maybe not Connecticut. Maybe not Notre Dame. But most.

"I think there is a very fine line," Washington said. "Certainly, if you're a program that doesn't have the depth that some of the top programs [have], then one or two players can hurt you. It doesn't take much for a potentially great season to slip into a good season, or a good season can slip into a mediocre or average season, or an average season can slip into a bad season."

She tried to add that the reverse can happen just as quickly. But even she didn't sound convinced.

"It's a little longer," she conceded.

Although league play began with losses to Indiana and Rutgers, the postseason remains a realistic objective. Penn State went 10-2 out of conference, including a win over Tennessee.

The rebuild is the work of many hands. Asked to do so much as a freshman a season ago, when she averaged nearly 38 minutes per game and led the team in points and assists, Teniya Page is averaging 20 points in saner minutes (though she missed the Rutgers loss for undisclosed reasons). Moore is healthy after a knee injury. Connecticut transfer De'Janae Boykin, only recently eligible as a redshirt freshman, equals in potential what she lacks in experience.

For a program that is coached by a former point guard and produced NCAA all-time assists leader Suzie McConnell-Serio (not to mention Alex Bentley, Helen Darling and Jess Strom), there is extra significance to someone such as Carter with the ball in her hands.

"She has such a bright basketball mind," Washington said. "She's such a phenomenal passer, and she's such a great decision-maker. She's got an unbelievable assist-to-turnover ratio. ... So even though right now she's not the explosive scorer that she was in high school -- which I think will come back as she plays more -- she makes her teammates better."

It was after just five minutes on the court in the season opener last year that Carter suffered a torn left ACL. She had torn the ligament in her right knee before the start of her senior season at St. John's High School in Washington, D.C.

"I was down," Carter said. "It really got to me because I thought that I was already back. And I had to do it all over again."

That it eventually took Penn State an overtime to beat Holy Cross in that game last season was a harbinger of struggles to come. For both team and recruit, there would be no quick fix.

"Two years of rehab is tough on anybody," Washington said. "It was really tough on her, especially when we got into the middle of conference play, and we were competing, playing hard but losing a lot of close games. She felt like she could make a difference, but her body was letting her down. But those moments happened away from the court, when she and I would talk. She was great on the bench, great with her teammates. She was so positive and encouraging."

No part of this is a finished product. Carter isn't all the way back. Penn State isn't all the way back. But if the 2014-15 season felt like a team adrift, the losses since have felt more like part of a process. A program, like its players returning from injuries, is trying to rediscover the confidence that is both cause and effect of winning.

Washington said that as a player at Notre Dame, she raced coach Muffet McGraw for the video after rare losses. Wins provided only fleeting satisfaction. Losses lingered. It wasn't that way for some teammates -- even teammates on the WNBA playoff teams she was a part of. Some could lose, get angry and then let it go. She dwelled and dissected what went wrong.

It is difficult to dwell for two years in a row. Carter said she appreciates the health she once took for granted. For Washington, it's the wins the rest of us once took for granted.

The coach's pre-teen children help, with son Quenton and daughter Rhaiyna willing to celebrate or commiserate their mom's basketball result for about 10 minutes -- and then ready to move on to whatever is next. But what also helps is seeing so much of the other side.

"I do appreciate [wins] a little bit more," Washington said. "It's a lot more fun winning and seeing the fruits and the rewards of your work. You put a lot of work in. And when you're going through a tough time and you come out on the other side -- and now we're competitive, we're winning games and we're enjoying this -- I do appreciate this a little bit more.

"You never know what can happen to rock the boat, and certainly, our boat was rocked."

It sometimes takes a smaller wave than you might think.