Each of the last five editions of the Purdue women's basketball program has featured a team in transition as the Lady Boilermakers have continually worked through the upheaval a rapid succession of new coaches inevitably brings. When Kristy Curry assumed the reins of the team three years ago, a measure of stability arrived with her, but a college basketball program doesn't turn around overnight. Attracting top-notch high school players is an important goal of any collegiate coach, and it can take years before a school's reputation is established with the better high school and AAU programs. Up to now, other coaches have had a three-year head start on Curry in her chase for girls talented enough to begin receiving "keep us in mind" letters before entering the ninth grade. As a result, Purdue has endured several cycles of hit-or-miss recruiting.
Small recruiting classes, especially when combined with transfers of disgruntled players, translated into teams with so little depth that available athletes were often forced to play out of position. Amazingly, Purdue's program remained an elite one during this time. The strains of being short-handed have, however, produced wild inconsistency. This fluctuation in fortunes is best illustrated by the Boilers' play during the past four NCAA tournaments -- two trips to the national championship game in odd-numbered years, alternating with second-round Mackey Arena defeats in 2000 and last March.
The 2002-03 Boilermakers will also be a team in transition, but transition of another kind - namely, the type seen when a squad is out on a fast break. The current edition of the Old Gold and Black is deep, talented, and young. With six freshmen in hand and three touted recruits already slated to arrive next fall, the program is finally demonstrating the stability needed to maintain a consistently high level of play year after year. Accordingly, the Big Ten media have predicted that the Boilers will win the conference for the third straight time, while the league's coaches believe Purdue will come in second. Time and again, one sees that pre-season predictions count for nothing once the pleather actually hits the hardwood -- how many people, after all, had Minnesota finishing in the upper half of the Big 10 last year? Nevertheless, it will probably take an unforeseen series of disastrous events to prevent Kristy Curry's club from contending for the conference crown and making a deep run into the NCAA tournament this season
Mary Jo Noon returns to anchor the paint at center. A running joke that gets better -- or at least older -- every time it is told has concerned the length of Mary Jo's stay in West Lafayette. It only began in 1998, so any claim that Noon is preparing to defend her Ph.D. thesis is obviously a wild exaggeration, but her tenure has encompassed the arrival of both Curry and university president Martin Jischke, as well as the Indiana Fever's debut at Conseco. In between a series of injuries, Mary Jo has made the most of her time. Her tireless work ethic has allowed her to improve substantially each year she's been able to take the court. Not only has Mary Jo become faster and stronger, she has --doctorate or not -- gotten a whole lot smarter. There isn't a whole lot Noon hasn't seen by now. Mary Jo can now be counted on to be able to defend dribble penetration and -- when on offense -- seal so that she has opportunities to shoot wide-open bunnies. She has learned how to guard opponents without drawing fouls, which is extremely fortunate, as she will need to play extended minutes this year.
Noon's primary backup looks to be freshman Carol Duncan. Duncan has exhibited a classic split personality. When off the court, she wears a constant smile and loves life and everything in it. On the court, she becomes a warrior. A tremendous athlete for her height, Carol is likely to be force-fed minutes this year so that she can take over starting center duties as a sophomore. Her primary job will be to learn how to play aggressive defense without fouling out, a challenge that all young centers struggle with.
Junior Lindsey Hicks will start at power forward. Lindsey had an up-and-down year as a sophomore. In some games, she played for prolonged stretches, and was one of the most effective competitors on the floor. In other contests, she barely got off the bench. Lindsey has always been a scorer, but at times lacked a dedication to defense, then seemed to be reading Page 4 of the playbook while her teammates were on Page 8. This might be the year it all comes together for Hicks. She is a good three-point shooter, and the fact that she is willing to put it up from behind the arc means that defenders must come out to guard her. This draws the opponents away from the lane, allowing plenty of space for Boiler guards to drive to the hoop. Lindsey's rebounding seems to have improved, as has her apparent overall confidence level. She may shift over to the wing at times, allowing Hicks to share the court with her primary backup, sophomore Emily Heikes.
Emily was an extremely pleasant surprise last year, as her lack of high school recognition had lowered most folks' expectations. Instead of merely getting off the bench at "garbage time", though, she quickly established herself in the rotation as the reserve center. This season, Emily will switch over to her natural position of power forward, although she may still see some time at the "5" as well. Emily is deceptively fast and athletic, and is one of the most competitive players on the court. She excels in rebounding, a skill that is 20% ability and 80% "want to". As a sophomore, Emily should be able to increase her scoring average after improving her shooting touch and range in the off-season.
Also looking for minutes at the power forward slot will be Sabrina Keys. In the preseason game against the Dominican Republic national team, Sabrina looked like a tentative freshman, but evidenced a world of "upside" by skying for rebounds and running the court extremely well. Sabrina may not see much playing time this season as she learns the ropes, but her natural talent will undoubtedly carry her far before her Purdue career is over.
Hannah Anderson, the sophomore walk-on who earned a scholarship last season, tore an anterior cruciate ligament in a September pick-up game. She has been on the bench and in uniform during the Boilers' exhibitions, and hopes to see action before Noon finally graduates.
Shereka Wright remains Purdue's go-to player at the "3" spot. When she has the ball on the wing, everyone in the building knows that Wright is going to drive the baseline and attempt a layup, but the junior's so fast she just can't be stopped. Usually, the defender swats at the ball or attempts to jump in and block the lane, only to be rewarded by the sound of a whistle, which enhances Shereka's fast-growing reputation of being a foul-drawing machine. She has been named a pre-season Big 10 first-teamer as well as a Naismith player-of-the-year finalist, and only injury will prevent her from being named to several All-America and all-conference teams once the campaign ends. The national recognition comes to Shereka because of her ability to score, but perhaps the most valuable asset she brings to the team is her defensive acumen. She is speedy enough to shut down dribble penetration from all but the fastest players. Despite her enormous talent, Shereka has always been an excellent team player as she dishes off to open teammates, throws herself after loose balls, and sets screens.
Backing up Wright will be freshman Missy Taylor. Despite her 6'3" height, Missy is a wing player through and through. She has a good three-point shot, and can both handle and pass the ball extremely well. Missy has an extremely difficult task in front of her this year. In addition to adjusting to the college game and a new set of teammates, she is returning to the court after sitting out her entire senior season at Connersville High with an ACL tear. Because of this, Missy may struggle more in the early going than will the other freshmen. Once Taylor gets on track, however, her ability to see over shorter defenders before either feeding the post or shooting will make Purdue extremely difficult to stop on the perimeter.
Erika Valek was thought to be the best point guard in her high school class. Since entering college she has been overshadowed -- first by such teammates as Katie Douglas and Shereka Wright, then by a painfully slow rehab from a torn ACL. Now a junior, she should finally live up to her advance billing, and "come out of nowhere" to receive not only all-conference honors, but All-America recognition as well. Erika is much faster and more mobile than she was as a sophomore, and her shooting accuracy in the pre-season has been nothing short of remarkable. In addition, she has adapted to the speed of opposing post players, and no longer appears to be forcing drives into the paint. Rather, Valek has made good decisions when considering whether to find the open player, pull up for a short jumper, or drive to the basket. As important as Erika's physical traits will be her ability to lead the Boilers and set the tone on the floor. Before the season, Curry was quoted as saying that the coach's main concern for the squad was leadership. It's hard to imagine that Erika won't step into whatever vacuum has been created by only having one senior on the roster. It is widely believed that in college ball, the "1" is indeed the most important position on the court, and that the team with the best point guard always has a chance to win it all. If that is truly the case, Purdue's outlook is excellent for 2002-03.
Erika will be backed up by Sharika Webb. Athletic and physically strong, Webb appeared to be the most advanced freshman during the exhibition season. Her ability to accurately pass to cutting players from half-court sets is one of her most impressive traits. She must learn to look to dish first and to be selective in seizing opportunities to penetrate, but "Sharika Junior" certainly has all the tools needed to succeed.
If Webb and Valek are penetrating and dishing, one of the busiest "dishees" will be starting "2" guard Beth Jones. When allowed to set up behind the arc, Beth is a deadly three-point shooter. She is reported to be one of the hardest workers on the team, and the improvement in her game certainly bears that claim out. The junior has been honing not only her pull-up jump shot but such fundamentals as passing and ball control. Beth is a very heady defender who excels at drawing charges and generally being in the right place at the right time.
Jones is primarily backed up by Ashley Mays, a lightning-quick freshman who is being used to initiate full court presses and various trapping defenses. As Ashley's comfort level increases, her ability to be an offensive threat will increase as well.
The final member of the team is freshman guard Brianna Howard. Brianna is the coaching staff's Christmas present. How often does a student who is bright enough to have earned a full academic "ride" just happen to be a high school All-Star as well? The answer is at least once, as Howard came to Purdue to study pharmacy on an Eli Lilly scholarship. Her career on the court may very well mirror that of Jones, who didn't see much playing time as a freshman, but improved yearly and became a key part of the game plan by her junior season.
Getting no respect is possibly the most trite of all sports cliches. It seems that no players, teams, or mascots have ever been accorded what they feel to be their respective "props". In Kristy Curry's case, however, the complaint actually has merit. Curry has done great things in her short time at Purdue -- kept the team in the top 15 nationally, led it to a Final Four after losing two key players to ACL injuries, and shown that she is one of the best recruiters in the business. On a more personal note, she has even charmed an extremely competitive multi-year contract out of Morgan Burke, an athletic director who is notoriously tight with his checkbook. Despite this, Curry's name is never mentioned (at least by the media: one hopes Kristy's peers are more perceptive) as one of the "up and coming coaches" or "best coaches" (indeed, not as any kind of coach) in the Big 10, let alone in the nation. Perhaps this is because Curry doesn't give interviews so much as recite cliché anthologies, and thus makes it tough to get a handle on her knowledge and her knack for recognizing situations as they arise.
Curry's preparation and understanding of the game were first-rate when she arrived in West Lafayette. By the end of last season, her clock management and in-game adjustments had reached a similar level. The best illustration of what type of person Kristy is might be in found in the example of Kelly Komara, who will be a student assistant coach during the fall semester. Kelly began her senior speech at last spring's recognition banquet by saying "Let's get something clear. I didn't sign to play for Kristy Curry. And she didn't recruit me." Komara went on to confirm the suspicions of many by admitting that she had not been particularly receptive to coaching when an underclassman. But in time, Kelly not only made her peace with Curry, but came to respect and value Kristy, and is now working alongside her.
Although the assistant coaches often fly under the radar, they deserve credit for a large share of the Boilers' success, particularly in the area of recruiting. No doubt the names of Pam Stackhouse and Kerry Cremeans are regularly tossed around when new vacancies arise in the head coaching ranks. While it would be nice to see Pam and Kerry given such opportunities, Purdue fans can't be blamed for hoping that "Stack" and Cremeans will turn down any requests to leave the Lafayette area in the immediate (or not-so-immediate) future.
If this preview reads as if written by Pollyanna's nicer sister, let me devote this paragraph to enumerating some causes for concern. Our starters have to stay healthy. The backup at each position is either a freshman or a sophomore. Inexperienced Boilers, no matter how talented, have historically struggled once the Big 10 portion of the season arrives. Even though she won't need it in most games, Shereka Wright has to develop a consistent jumper. When the Boilers play other highly ranked teams, Shereka will be too easy to guard if she's no threat to shoot from outside. Other players need to take some of the scoring burden off of Wright; ideally, three or even four of her teammates will each post double-digit point totals on any given night. With the exception of Shereka and Erika, our veterans aren't the most athletic; conversely, most of our natural athletes are inexperienced.
Up next - Part II: A Look at the 2002-2003 Schedule